Luke Bodek had planned to pick produce — not a fight — when he and his mom went grocery shopping earlier this month.
That changed when he witnessed two people ransack an express liquor store attached to the East Kildonan supermarket he was in. Concerned for the safety of fellow customers, the 35-year-old recalled he suddenly felt adrenaline take over and found himself tackling one of the would-be thieves to the ground.
"It was a spur-of-the-moment decision… I was just fed up with hearing stories of Liquor Marts getting robbed," he said during a phone call two weeks after the incident.
With help from two other men, Bodek effected a successful citizen’s arrest. He held the teen down for more than 20 minutes until police arrived.
Winnipeg police receive between 10 and 20 reports of thefts at Liquor Marts across the city every day. Meanwhile, minor theft was up 57 per cent in 2018 over the five-year average, the force’s latest annual report says.
The rise in brazen crime has prompted customers to take action rather than be bystanders, prompting warnings from police, criminal law experts and Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries.
Over the weekend, a video of a two-person takedown of a suspected thief at a Liquor Mart on Plessis Road made the rounds on social media. The video shows the first man bodychecking the alleged thief so the other can tackle him from behind, ultimately putting him in a hold on the ground. A blue bottle of alcohol smashes amid the chaos.
"You have to ask yourself, is your safety or is your well-being worth the product that they’re stealing?" Winnipeg Police Service Const. Jay Murray, a public information officer, said Monday.
A gun, machete and bottles have all been used as weapons during recent liquor-store robberies, he said, adding that alcohol has become "a form of currency" in the underground market.
Murray said police recognize how frustrating it can be to watch someone commit a crime, but that it is important people recognize both the risks and requirements needed to perform a citizen’s arrest.
“We have state-of-the-art surveillance. We don’t need anyone to help us by taking iPhone videos.” – Andrea Kowal, Director, Corporate and Public Affairs Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries
By law, in most cases, anyone who makes such an arrest has to catch a criminal in the act. In property-related crimes, a person undertaking a citizen’s arrest must own the item being stolen or have possession of it. Otherwise, they must have been authorized to do so by the property owner.
The law also allows for only as much force as necessary and immediate delivery to police.
"A citizen’s arrest can stop perhaps one person, but it’s not going to stop the issue," said Katharina Maier, an assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of Winnipeg.
Crime is not an individual, but rather a social problem, Maier said Monday, citing poverty, drug use, frustration and feelings of marginalization.
Lax security at Liquor Marts is not the problem, said MLL's Andrea Kowal, who pointed to societal problems such as poverty and addiction. Kowal said that thefts are up everywhere and if Liquor Marts kept bottles behind the counter, customers would likely end up getting robbed of their booze in the parking lot.
A hastily called question-and-answer session was held at the Crown corporation’s offices to respond to a number of requests from reporters about Liquor Mart thefts, the rise in social media "chatter" and videos showing customers acting to stop the brazen banditry.
"We have state-of-the-art surveillance," Kowal told reporters. "We don’t need anyone to help us by taking iPhone videos," she said, adding that customers are just putting themselves at risk of being hurt by the bandits.
Stores that have loss-prevention and police officers posted are still getting robbed, said Kowal, who wasn't able to provide any statistics Monday.
"We’re not giving up," she said, saying Manitoba’s Liquor Marts are among the most progressive in the country at trying to curb theft by using bottle locks and other measures, the details of which she declined to discuss.
"If there was a silver bullet, we would’ve implemented it by now," she said, adding that "a little more empathy and support" of store staff would be helpful.
Manitoba Government and General Employees' Union president Michelle Gawronsky called theft in Liquor Marts "an epidemic" that is causing staff to take stress leaves. Employees crying, vomiting or sitting in their cars in the parking lot of their workplace feeling panic are just some of the stories she has heard recently.
"We’re not police, we’re not there to be stopping the thieves and we need to think about safety first, for ourselves, for other shoppers," Gawronsky said.
Winnipeg police Chief Danny Smyth is meeting with justice officials this week to discuss the problem.
In the meantime, Gawronsky said members of the public should back off but also try to take note of a suspect's details to give police.
Maggie is a cub reporter who covers every beat in the newsroom. She appreciates alliteration, when newspaper ink stains her fingertips and, more importantly, tips on social and environmental equity issues.
Carol Sanders’ reporting on newcomers to Canada has made international headlines, earned national recognition but most importantly it’s shared the local stories of the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home.