WEATHER ALERT

Tories earn praise for police task force from unlikely ally

A longtime community advocate, who’s an NDP supporter, sent Manitoba’s Tory premier and justice minister thank-you notes a day after they announced a police task force to target violent “bad guys.”

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A longtime community advocate, who’s an NDP supporter, sent Manitoba’s Tory premier and justice minister thank-you notes a day after they announced a police task force to target violent “bad guys.”

“Our politics are totally different, but more had to be done about this: seriously violent criminals breaching conditions,” Sel Burrows said Friday.

The founder of the North Point Douglas crime-prevention Powerline said he knows more needs to be done to address the long-term issues of poverty and addictions to prevent crime, but there is an immediate need to protect people from violent attacks.

Community activist Sel Burrows says there is an immediate need to protect people from violent attacks. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press files)

On Thursday, Premier Heather Stefanson and Justice Minister Kelvin Goertzen announced an integrated task force to track and monitor high-risk and violent offenders.

Burrows said he had lobbied the justice minister in recent months to take action that targets violent repeat offenders.

“The people who are killing people need to be taken off the streets as fast as possible,” said the octogenarian. “The system wasn’t working.”

The proof is in the almost daily news reports about someone out on bail or probation charged with a homicide or serious assault, Burrows said.

“We’re heading for 50 murders (this year in Winnipeg) and an unbelievable number of serious assaults.”

The $3.2-million integrated violent offender apprehension unit, to be run by the Winnipeg Police Service and RCMP, will help locate offenders who are responsible for violent crime in Winnipeg and communities across Manitoba. The unit will have access to all the resources of both police services to take violent offenders into custody, the premier said.

Officers will use criminal intelligence practices to target and track high-risk offenders who have warrants for arrest, who are gang-involved, drug traffickers, illegal gun smugglers, or involved in organized crime, Goertzen said.

While that brought relief to Burrows, who has lived in an area plagued by substance abuse and violence, others were unimpressed with the Tory announcement.

“When I see the province making these kind of ‘war on crime’ announcements, I’m really concerned for people who are already over-policed and over-criminalized in the province,” said Kevin Walby, associate professor in the criminal justice department at the University of Winnipeg.

Premier Heather Stefanson announces an integrated provincial police unit to target high-risk offenders at The Forks on Thursday. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

“My fear is that not only will this be used in a precautionary, pre-emptive way” to violate the principle of requiring reasonable, probable grounds for police to arrest someone but, over time, it will be extended to other categories of “transgressors,” such a political adversaries, Walby said.

If the purpose is to make sure people don’t breach conditions of their release, there are already systems created for that, he said.

“There are probation officers, social workers, support teams. A lot of these units that are community-based have been defunded in the last 20 years while police budgets go up and up and up,” Walby said.

The City of Winnipeg budgeted $320.7 million to fund police operations last year, as per the 2021 Winnipeg Police Service annual report, which works out to $418 per person, up five per cent from $398 in 2020.

Police funding soared 64 per cent from 2005 to 2015, adjusting for inflation. As a share of the city budget, it increased to 26.5 per cent from 18.5 per cent.

“We’ve tried policing and punitive approaches for 50 years and it hasn’t led to a decrease in transgressions,” Walby said. “If anything, there are more transgressions in this city and even people that are more distress than ever. It’s because we’ve defunded the community groups, the outreach groups, the urban and social development groups that can really help people.”

The number of violent crimes reported in Winnipeg last year — 10,993 — increased by five per cent over the previous year. Last year, 43 homicides were reported in Winnipeg, representing an increase of 2.4 per cent from 2020. This year, there have been 44 homicides in the city, matching the highest number ever reported in 2019.

Burrows said he thinks the families of the 44 homicide victims this year, along with Manitoba’s murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls, would lean toward targeting “bad guys” with violent records who’ve been released.

“The people who are committing crimes, they learn very quickly what they can get away with and what they can’t,” said Burrows.

The $3.2-million integrated violent offender apprehension unit will help locate offenders who are responsible for violent crime in Winnipeg and communities across Manitoba, Premier Heather Stefanson said Thursday. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

The North Point Douglas community pushed gangs and drug dealers out of their neighbourhood by keeping their eyes peeled for illegal activity, reporting it and then urging police to go after offenders, the community organizer said.

“The No. 1 serious crime-prevention program is conditions of release, so that when somebody is arrested and if they are released, they know what the conditions of their release are and that they’re going to be enforced,” said Burrows.

“Most people live up to those.”

It’s those accused of violent crimes who don’t live up to those conditions who need to be watched, Burrows said.

carol.sanders@freepress.mb.ca

Carol Sanders

Carol Sanders
Legislature reporter

After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.

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