Seeking balance in police protection, provocation


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It was an extraordinary sight: one of the largest local rallies in decades, held on the grounds of the Manitoba Legislative Building, and not a single uniformed police officer was on hand.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 09/06/2020 (913 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It was an extraordinary sight: one of the largest local rallies in decades, held on the grounds of the Manitoba Legislative Building, and not a single uniformed police officer was on hand.

Their services weren’t needed.

An estimated 15,000 people attended the Justice 4 Black Lives rally June 5, one of many held around the world in the wake of the death of George Floyd, a Black man killed in Minneapolis last month after a white police officer pinned him to the ground and knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes.

Protesters gather on the west side of the Manitoba Legislative Building for a rally in support of justice for Black lives in Winnipeg on June 5, 2020. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press files)

The Winnipeg rally was a powerful response to Floyd’s death and a bold statement against systemic racism in society.

Normally, an event of this size would attract teams of police; in cruiser cars, on foot, on motorcycles — eyeballing participants and gathering intelligence. Police would typically have one or two large vehicles parked on the south side of the building, ready to detain suspects in the event of arrests.

Their presence at protests like these in the past was, in most cases, automatic and expected.

But not on this June evening; there wasn’t a cop to be seen anywhere on the legislative grounds. The only visible presence was a brief appearance by Air-1, the Winnipeg Police Service helicopter, which buzzed around early but was eventually called off.

There were police officers closing streets and managing traffic outside the protest area, but none — at least none in uniform — were present at the rally.

The reason was obvious: a police presence under these circumstances would likely have provoked a clash between cops and some protesters, a number of whom were wielding “defund police” placards. Their presence would have added fuel to the fire. It was the right decision not to attend.

What we saw instead was a peaceful protest that didn’t need law enforcement to maintain order. There was anger and frustration in the crowd, but like most rallies in Winnipeg, those feelings were expressed without physical violence or property damage.

In an environment where society is now rethinking law enforcement’s role — whether we have too much of it, whether the size of police forces should be scaled back — we saw an example where traditional policing wasn’t necessary.

That’s not to say police weren’t monitoring the event. They were, from afar, ready to deploy if the protest turned dangerous. But the fact a large protest occurred without them, and without incident, raises questions about how law enforcement resources are used in other circumstances.

Do we need police at every large gathering, at every Winnipeg Jets and Blue Bombers game? Is a visible, heavily-armed emergency response unit necessary at big events like the downtown Whiteout street parties?

Winnipeg has the fourth-largest police force in Canada per capita, among cities with populations of 500,000 or more.

At 181 officers per 100,000 people (down from 212 five years ago), is it the appropriate size? The number of calls to 911 continues to soar, well above the rate of Winnipeg’s population growth. But do we really need police making well-being checks, the second most frequent call after domestic disturbances?

At the same time, Winnipeg has a high rate of violent crime, with its crime severity index measure on an upswing since 2015. Can we afford to cut the police complement (which has already been reduced and further civilian-ized in recent years) given that reality?

These are questions policymakers will be asking themselves going forward, as the issue of police resources, and how they’re used, reaches a new level of debate.

Trying to find the right balance between protecting society from genuine security threats and moving away from a policing style that can provoke as much as protect is no easy task.

We need police to respond to emergency situations, to investigate crimes and keep the public peace. But as we saw last week, sometimes, we don’t need them to maintain order.

Winnipeggers showed they are capable of holding a large, peaceful rally without police looking over their shoulders.

Tom Brodbeck

Tom Brodbeck

Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.

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