Reassurance from police chief Smyth calls spate of violence alarming, but cautions against overreaction

For Winnipeg’s police chief, a series of attacks at The Forks is alarming, but it’s “nothing new” amid year-on-year increases in violent crime and calls for help from citizens.

Read this article for free:

or

Already have an account? Log in here »

To continue reading, please subscribe with this special offer:

All-Access Digital Subscription

$1.50 for 150 days*

  • Enjoy unlimited reading on winnipegfreepress.com
  • Read the E-Edition, our digital replica newspaper
  • Access News Break, our award-winning app
  • Play interactive puzzles
Continue

*Pay $1.50 for the first 22 weeks of your subscription. After 22 weeks, price increases to the regular rate of $19.00 per month. GST will be added to each payment. Subscription can be cancelled after the first 22 weeks.

For Winnipeg’s police chief, a series of attacks at The Forks is alarming, but it’s “nothing new” amid year-on-year increases in violent crime and calls for help from citizens.

In response to the incidents, Danny Smyth said police are doing more foot patrols at the popular tourist site and promising a full-time presence on weekends to increase security in the interim.

He seemed to suggest the wider discussion about public safety and violence was amplified by the media, amid concerns about the attacks.

“Nothing that we’re talking about today is new, nothing,” Smyth told reporters at police headquarters Friday. “We have been talking about some of these issues for a very long time. None of this is new, but it became very more of a priority for the media this week.”

JESSICA LEE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS In response to the attacks at The Forks, police are doing more foot patrols and will have a full-time presence on weekends for the time being, said police chief Danny Smyth.

Similar incidents in other parts of the city are treated with the same seriousness, he said, with a “relatively small” number of assaults occurring at The Forks each year compared with other areas.

Police annually receive about 40 to 60 calls for service at The Forks, based on a five-year average, and 2022 is on pace to have a similar number.

In that five-year span, the highest number of assaults in a year was 14, while the lowest was six. Five have been reported this year.

As he attempted to reassure Winnipeggers and visitors, Smyth said he feels safe at The Forks, a place he visits with his family, and in the community.

He said arrests occurred swiftly in most of this year’s incidents, including a homicide in a parkade in May, while the investigation continues into the stabbing of a Ukrainian refugee on Canada Day.

While several teens have been arrested in some of the incidents, youth crime is trending downward, he said.

ETHAN CAIRNS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES The Forks Market parking lot. Reports of violent crime in 2021 were five per cent higher than 2020, with police seeing an “awful lot” of people carrying weapons such as guns and knives.

Police are working with management at The Forks to determine if other security measures are needed.

Earlier in the week, police declined to comment on violent-crime trends following the latest attack — the third in just five days — saying Smyth would speak to the media when 2021 crime statistics are released next week.

However, he held a news conference Friday, after journalists continued to request interviews and statistics.

Smyth said a five per cent increase in violence crime in 2021, compared with 2020, was driven by a rise in assaults, notably with weapons.

He cited gangs, drugs, alcohol, mental health and the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, which included long periods of isolation, as some of the factors behind violence in the city.

“We have a lot on our plate as we come out of the pandemic. There are clearly a lot of angry and frustrated people out there, and some of them are lashing out in unexpected and dangerous ways,” he said.

“We have a lot on our plate as we come out of the pandemic. There are clearly a lot of angry and frustrated people out there, and some of them are lashing out in unexpected and dangerous ways.” – Danny Smyth

While a lot of people are walking around with weapons, such as knives, machetes or axes, police can’t plan for stabbings or random confrontations that turn violent, said Smyth.

Gun-related calls have increased by about 27 per cent over the last five years, with more than 850 firearms seized last year and 340 in 2022.

In 2021, police were called to almost 1,200 incidents involving knives and 470 with guns; they received more than 600,000 calls for service — a 10 per cent increase — from the previous year.

Smyth acknowledged the homicide count — 27 as of Friday afternoon — is high. A clearance rate of about 80 per cent is “remarkable,” he said, noting about one-quarter of homicides involve gangs.

The chief said officers are doing the best they can and he believes they are making a difference.

“We will continue to do our part. We need the community to look out for each other, as well, and be a good partner with us, so that we can address these things,” he said. “The media needs to do their part.”

“We will continue to do our part. We need the community to look out for each other, as well, and be a good partner with us, so that we can address these things.” – Danny Smyth

To address violent crime, police plan to work more with community groups and carry on with existing strategies to counter problems such as gangs, guns and exploitation.

Smyth doesn’t believe there’s a shortage of officers despite a “finite” budget and number of resources.

After the union for officers said burnout and post-traumatic stress disorder were on the rise, Smyth said he is concerned about the well-being of members. He believes the service has appropriate supports in place.

Winnipeg Police Board chairman Coun. Markus Chambers, who backed Smyth following the news conference, said more work needs to be done to end the stigma of crime in the city.

He said the public’s concern following the attacks at The Forks wasn’t an overreaction, as he acknowledged some people feel less safe.

Chambers wants the police board to hold a summit with downtown groups this fall to address problems in that part of the city.

He also wants to work with higher levels of government on ways to free up officers from having to deal with non-emergency well-being checks.

Dan Vandal, the sole Manitoban in the federal cabinet, said Ottawa is open to helping if the city requests assistance, although he didn’t have any specific aid in mind.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES Dan Vandal, the sole Manitoban in the federal cabinet, said Ottawa is open to helping if the city requests assistance, although he didn’t have any specific aid in mind.

“When violence is random (and) unprovoked, it’s hard to guard against that, other than through more eyes and ears on the street, and taking care of one another and providing good support services,” said Vandal, who was at The Forks just hours before the Canada Day attack.

“When I heard about the attacks, it was just heart-wrenching,” the Liberal MP for St. Boniface-St. Vital said.

Public safety activist Sel Burrows, who works with police and supports victims of crime, said he has noticed an increase in violence.

“We’ve had more incidents the last couple of months than we’re used to,” said Burrows, co-ordinator of the Point Powerline community watch group in Point Douglas. “There is an absolute increase in violent crime. The police officers I speak to, they’re saying they’ve never seen so many guns and knives.”

“There is an absolute increase in violent crime. The police officers I speak to, they’re saying they’ve never seen so many guns and knives.” – Sel Burrows

Last week, an intruder attacked a mother in her home, he said.

Solving the problem goes beyond putting police officers and social workers on the streets, said Burrows, who would like more Winnipeggers to get involved in efforts to tackle crime.

To give police additional “eyes on the street,” he suggested partnerships with private security guards, taxi drivers and caretakers of residential buildings.

The Downtown Community Safety Partnership is hoping to have 20 surveillance cameras installed around the area by the fall.

The final cost of the pilot project isn’t known, but funds previously allocated from the province will be used, said executive director Greg Burnett.

“It seems we’ve been fighting this for quite some time,” said Burnett, referring to violent crime. “We have to change this image of Winnipeg and where we’re at. It’s a good city.”

— with files from Dylan Robertson

chris.kitching@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @chriskitching

JESSICA LEE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS As he attempted to reassure Winnipeggers and visitors, police chief Danny Smyth said he feels safe at The Forks, a place he visits with his family, and in the community.

Chris Kitching
Reporter

As a general assignment reporter, Chris covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.

Report Error Submit a Tip