Premier denies criticism of police chief akin to meddling
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This article was published 14/07/2022 (321 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Premier Heather Stefanson insisted she didn’t intend to butt in to Winnipeg police operations when she publicly expressed her disappointment with Chief Danny Smyth’s take on the recent spate of violence against innocent bystanders.
“I’m not interfering in the deliberations or the operations of the police service at all,” Stefanson said on Thursday, during her first public appearance since returning from this week’s premiers conference in Victoria.
On Tuesday, the premier posted to social media that she was “very concerned” with comments made by Smyth, who on Friday said a recent streak of violent crime was concerning but not unusual for the city.
Stefanson later told the Free Press she was “really disappointed” with the chief’s remarks and spoke with Winnipeg Police Association president Moe Sabourin to “hear what’s really happening” within the service and offer her unwavering support to officers.
The police union has said its members have increasing concern with Smyth’s ability to lead the service and has called for more general foot patrols and action to boost morale amid a five per cent increase in violent crime last year.
“What I’m doing is sending a very strong message to those front-line officers there, who day in and day out, are going out into our community and are facing tragic situations that are happening.”
– Premier Heather Stefanson
“What I’m doing is sending a very strong message to those front-line officers there, who day in and day out, are going out into our community and are facing tragic situations that are happening,” Stefanson said during an unrelated media event in northeast Winnipeg on Thursday morning.
However, the premier’s criticism of the chief is in sharp contrast to her government’s support for the WPS and its handling of the three-week ‘freedom convoy’ occupation of downtown Winnipeg in February.
At the time, the service came under fire for its response to the prolonged demonstration, both with respect to communications and enforcement. Mayor Brian Bowman called for police to apply the law and end the rowdy demonstration against public health orders. Under provincial law, elected officials cannot direct the actions of police.
But Stefanson took a softer stance, saying it would be inappropriate to interfere with police decisions and “it’s important to let the professionals do their jobs — that’s the Winnipeg police — and I think we need to have respect for what they’re doing.”
Kevin Walby, an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Winnipeg, said by publicizing her concern with Smyth’s stance on crime trends, the premier is likely raising political capital with the police union, which wants to see the chief turfed.
“Stefanson is in a really bad spot in terms of popularity,” Walby said. “So (the Tories) are desperate for something, and if they can jump onto this law-and-order ideology that the police union has, and try to spin that into some votes, conservative politicians always like to capitalize on these kinds of crises.”
The police union is looking for external validation of its concerns with Smyth’s leadership, Walby said.
“So (the Tories) are desperate for something, and if they can jump onto this law-and-order ideology that the police union has, and try to spin that into some votes, conservative politicians always like to capitalize on these kinds of crises.”
– Kevin Walby, associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Winnipeg
In an interview with the Free Press earlier this week, Sabourin said he hoped the premier’s support would make clear union comments were not “self-serving,” but made out of concern for the public.
“Stefanson is looking for some kind of traction, and the traction is crisis,” Walby said. “And the union is looking for some kind of leverage to pop (Smyth) out of there and put in some kind of more hard-line superintendent as the chief.”
Stefanson said Thursday she does not share the police union’s concern over Smyth’s ability to lead the force. Rather, she is concerned the chief’s message normalized violence in Winnipeg, which “is not right.”
The premier said her office has reached out to Smyth for a conversation. Asked to respond to criticism her remarks have undermined the chief, Stefanson said “people can think what they want.”
“My point is that I want to ensure that all Manitobans can feel safe wherever they are in our province,” she said.
Walby, who directs the Centre for Access to Information and Justice, said the premier’s comments could be a sign the Progressive Conservative government wants to further reform to the Police Services Act.
Two pieces of legislation amending the Police Services Act — based on recommendations from an independent review completed in September 2020 — became law in June. They establish a provincial code of conduct and make changes to the Independent Investigations Unit.
The review recommended the province replace municipal appointees to police boards with provincial appointees and that police boards become the employer of the chief and sworn and civilian members.
“What this could be is laying the groundwork for the province to inject themselves into that context and retract or claw back some autonomy of the city in policing,” Walby said.
Justice Minister Kelvin Goertzen was unavailable to comment, a spokesman said.
Danielle Da Silva
Danielle Da Silva is a general assignment reporter.