Tensions have erupted between Winnipeg’s police chief and rank-and-file officers over reaction from the top brass to the sudden deaths of two veteran cops, including one said to be distraught over anti-police sentiment.

Tensions have erupted between Winnipeg’s police chief and rank-and-file officers over reaction from the top brass to the sudden deaths of two veteran cops, including one said to be distraught over anti-police sentiment.

The rift has been exacerbated by Chief Danny Smyth’s decision, on Monday, to launch an internal investigation into fake "member updates" — bulletins issued by the chief — that are riddled with sarcasm and target fellow officers.

Fake memos

On March 1, police Chief Danny Smyth issued a scathing message to his members about two false bulletins circulated among officers.

On March 1, police Chief Danny Smyth issued a scathing message to his members about two false bulletins circulated among officers. 

One phony memo, obtained by the Free Press, sarcastically congratulates Patrol Sgt. Jeffery Norman, who has faced lawsuits and allegations related to excessive use of force. 

The headline on the memo, laid out in a similar manner to member updates regularly issued by Smyth, reads “Jeff Norman, most sued police officer in the history of the WPS.” 

“His incidents include tasering and pepper spraying ‘subjects’ and being able to somehow articulate his reasons. Did you know that OC spray (similar to pepper spray) can be used to ‘mark’ a suspect for identification purposes at a later date? Who knew that was on the Use of Force Continuum? Not me! Again, job well done,” the fake memo reads. 

The chief’s response to the two memos was swift and blistering. 

“I write this update with both indignation and revulsion over a series of false member updates,” the chief’s real memo reads. 

He directed the professional standards unit to begin a “full investigation.”  

"This person has no place in our organization," he said of whoever spread the phony documents.

“At a time in our history when our profession finds itself under constant attack — while trying to do a difficult job in the midst of a pandemic — we don’t need more internal strife,” Smyth wrote.

The union president agreed the forgeries were "simply not acceptable." 

"The (police association) completely unequivocably condemns any action that discriminates or denigrates others," Moe Sabourin wrote. 

— Erik Pindera

A memo issued by Winnipeg Police Association president Moe Sabourin to union members refers to "morale concerns," which "have become more acute in the wake of the sudden and tragic deaths of two WPS members and the chief’s lack of any outreach to the families of these individuals — or to the broader service."

Sabourin condemned the phony memos, and blasted Smyth for the tone he used when he informed officers the professional standards unit would investigate the forgeries.

"This message — with its incendiary language and barely controlled tone, devoid of any details or context whatsoever — has understandably shaken, confused and angered many of you. To have a message like this come from the chief in the middle of a pandemic, and at a time where we are still deeply grieving the loss of two members, is even more concerning to many of you," Sabourin wrote.

He told members he understands low morale is "tied to growing concerns over the leadership of our current chief of police."

On Wednesday, neither the police service nor the union responded to questions by the Free Press.

Officers are mourning the deaths of two colleagues in the past month: a 44-year-old father of two who joined the WPS in 2004 died Feb. 5; and a 43-year-old constable with 15 years of service died by suicide Feb. 21.

On Wednesday, the police chief sent an internal memo to officers about the constable.

"Since his death, our focus has been on supporting (his wife) and their extended family, as well as his close friends and colleagues," Smyth said, pointing to the "robust behavioural health and support program" offered to officers.

"I know that some of you are hurting and struggling to process this tragedy. In the coming days, behavioural health will be facilitating a number of group debriefings."

A procession in remembrance of the constable was slated for Wednesday evening, Smyth said.

An obituary for the constable calls him a gentle and funny man who was happy to help people who needed it. It says his outlook changed in the past year as police around North America were criticized for violent interactions with people and demonstrations were held in the Black Lives Matter movement.

"Sadly the light in his eyes began to dim in latter months as he became increasingly troubled with anti-police protests, campaigns, growing public hatred and cynicism toward police officers. World events only made things much worse and (he) struggled to cope with these new realities," the obituary said.

A message on the obituary, written by deputy police chief Art Stannard, said a memorial table had been set up, "where members can reflect, tell stories and sign the condolence book." He listed some of the comments by fellow officers and added: (The constable) answered his personal calling to be a police officer, to be a protector of society and to serve the citizens of Winnipeg. He performed these duties with honour, dedication, compassion and caring."

The union contends police brass failed to adequately respond to its members’ grief in a timely manner and that morale has taken a huge hit.

"We believe... that a serious morale problem is growing within the Winnipeg Police Service, and this problem stems from a lack of leadership — by the mayor, by the city council and especially the current chief of police," the message said.

The union called for an independent assessment by qualified experts about the state of police morale.

erik.pindera@freepress.mb.ca

Erik Pindera
Multimedia producer

Erik Pindera is a multimedia producer at the Winnipeg Free Press.

   Read full biography