Premier picks side in Winnipeg police union, chief dispute

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Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson took aim at Winnipeg Police Service Chief Danny Smyth and threw her support behind “front-line officers,” after a recent streak of violent crime was described as nothing new by the city’s top cop.

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Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson took aim at Winnipeg Police Service Chief Danny Smyth and threw her support behind “front-line officers,” after a recent streak of violent crime was described as nothing new by the city’s top cop.

In an interview late Tuesday afternoon, Stefanson told the Free Press she was “really disappointed” with comments made by the police chief following a series of high-profile incidents, including the stabbing of a Ukrainian refugee at The Forks.

“It sort of seemed to almost normalize these violent activities that are taking place in Winnipeg and I’m very concerned about that,” Stefanson told the Free Press. “Our front-line officers have done such amazing work throughout very, very difficult times and I wanted to send a message: we have their backs.”

Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson to front-line WPS officers: “We have their backs.”

During a news conference July 8, the WPS chief suggested such crimes were not unusual in the city. “Nothing that we’re talking about today is new. Nothing. This is a concern to us, but it’s not new to us (police),” Smyth said.

On Tuesday, Stefanson said she had a productive call with Winnipeg Police Association president Moe Sabourin to “hear what’s really happening” within the ranks of the service and express her support.

“He was very appreciative, and was going to let his front-line officers know.”

A statement issued by the premier further solidified her allegiance with the union representing more than 1,400 officers, which has challenged Smyth to do more to address public safety concerns and the health of its members.

In her statement, Stefanson said she and Sabourin agreed “the incidents cannot be the new normal in Winnipeg.”

“Let me be clear, violent attacks against innocent civilians will never be acceptable. Manitobans deserve to feel safe and protected in their community,” the premier said.

Sabourin said it “felt very good” to have the premier’s staff reach out to him about having a conversation, which occurred virtually.

“Because we’ve had that relationship in the past, and we’ve had good conversations, to have the premier reach out and say, ‘We hear you,’ and to make a statement in support of us, is very important.”

He said he hoped Stefanson’s vocal support would make it clear comments made by the union aren’t “self-serving,” rather, made out of concern for the public.

A survey of WPS officers taken last year reported high percentages of burnout, anxiety and overwork. While Sabourin stopped short of calling on Smyth to step down, he said members are ready to see him go after a year of slow-moving action from the top.

“There are operational things that need to be done, but I would also say that, as far as morale, I don’t know if there is anything that the chief can do at this point that would reverse that we’ve seen in the past year,” he said.

The WPA is calling on the Winnipeg Police Board to make a decision based on concerns being brought forward now when the decision to extend or end Smyth’s contract next comes. (In 2021, the board extended Smyth’s contract until at least 2023.)

“The majority of my members would be ecstatic if we had a new chief,” Sabourin said.

Board chairman Coun. Markus Chambers said the acrimony between the union and chief is no secret. However, the premier’s concern over Smyth’s stance on crime will not influence the board, he added.

“As a board, we report to the citizens of Winnipeg, not to the premier.”

Chambers did not answer directly Tuesday when asked if the premier’s disappointment with the chief weakens public confidence in the WPS. However, he acknowledged it is rare for a premier to weigh in on the public communications of a police chief.

“Elected officials’ words are very powerful words… That does have a direct impact in terms of those statements that are made,” he said.

Smyth continues to have the full confidence of the board and the WPS is responding to public safety concerns — not trying to normalize violence, Chambers said.

He added the provincial government is responsible for housing, mental health and addictions services: issues that often occupy police resources.

“In some cases, they don’t need a gun and a badge response,” Chambers said. “From that perspective, if the province could step up on those issues, (the premier) is welcome to make those comments accordingly.”

Opposition justice critic Nahanni Fontaine said the premier’s public disappointment with Smyth undermines the police chief, while adopting a narrative of rising crime ahead of the next general election (2023).

“I’m not entirely surprised that this premier chose to lean into this moment, when the public seemingly is worried about a rise in crime,” the NDP MLA said. “Despite the chief of police saying these are numbers that we typically see, she has actually just stoked those fires.

“I think that’s incredibly naive and irresponsible for a premier to do.”

— with files from Dylan Robertson and Malak Abas

danielle.dasilva@freepress.mb.ca

Danielle Da Silva

Danielle Da Silva
Reporter

Danielle Da Silva is a general assignment reporter.

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