November 16, 2018

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Opinion

Driving down the crime rate

River Heights' Smashed Window Club lauded

Gordon Sinclair Jr. / Winnipeg Free Press</p><p>Above: Andrew McCrea, co-founderof the Smashed Window Club, is proud of the group’s ‘modest success.’</p></p>

Gordon Sinclair Jr. / Winnipeg Free Press

Above: Andrew McCrea, co-founderof the Smashed Window Club, is proud of the group’s ‘modest success.’

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 22/10/2016 (755 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Earlier this month, the Winnipeg Police Service issued a news release advising there has been an “upward trend” this year in theft from vehicles, which made me wonder what was happening in River Heights.

A year or so ago, the leafy and lovely neighbourhood that borders our inner city and stretches south from Wellington Crescent, became the perceived epicentre of that style of property crime after a group of citizens got loud and went public with being victimized by both the criminals and having to pay the MPI deductibles on their vehicles’ windows.

So how are things in River Heights now?

Theft from vehicles has gone down in River Heights.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 22/10/2016 (755 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Earlier this month, the Winnipeg Police Service issued a news release advising there has been an "upward trend" this year in theft from vehicles, which made me wonder what was happening in River Heights.

A year or so ago, the leafy and lovely neighbourhood that borders our inner city and stretches south from Wellington Crescent, became the perceived epicentre of that style of property crime after a group of citizens got loud and went public with being victimized by both the criminals and having to pay the MPI deductibles on their vehicles’ windows.

So how are things in River Heights now?

Theft from vehicles has gone down in River Heights.

Sgt. Mike Brooker, who was part of the police push to call community meetings and listen to the angry residents back in spring 2015, credits one group of citizens in particular for making the biggest difference.

Brooker says police are always asking the community to help them solve crime, but he’s never seen it done better than the way the Smashed Window Club model has accomplished it over the past year-and-a-half.

"It actually works," Brooker said.

The club is a Facebook group — an online Neighborhood Watch — now numbering more than 700 River Heights residents who keep each other and the police informed about suspicious characters and property crime of every kind; some even while live online, while the event is in progress.

Brooker also credits last year’s media attention and what he believes is the word that reached the thieves on the street that the citizens were watching for them and not just the few police cruisers that patrol the large district late into the night. But it was the Smashed Window Club — a name that speaks for itself and the problem — that has pulled it all together.

One of its founders, Andrew McCrea, 29, remembers how frustrating it was at the beginning, before he and others went beyond the news media and even police and turned to social media.

"I was a college student when I got my first window smashed," McCrea said. "And a $200 deductible was something that was very, very difficult to come up with.

"There was even one man who had 10 smashed windows and paid 10 deductibles."

The Smashed Windows Club takes credit for convincing MPI to waive vehicle deductibles for vandalism in the area, but it also salutes police, the media and local politicians for its "modest success."

I think it was the way the group got police attention and engaged them as partners that mattered most.

"I think we really changed the perception of property crime," McCrea said. "With the police, initially, it was, ‘Well, property crime is property crime. We have really serious violence that’s happening that we have to police.’"

What I think really changed wasn’t the perception of property crime, but the way the people of River Heights were able to make the police feel the frustration and anger they were feeling. And how police explained their own frustration about not having the resources to help them as much as they wanted. Because, after all, they knew how it felt to have the windows of their own family cars smashed and property stolen. Cops are people, too.

"We really tried to build a relationship with police," McCrea said.

And obviously the group has succeeded.

But it’s not as if River Heights is now free of property crime.

"Because," said McCrea, "I even had an experience where I caught one of them outside my house not even that long ago. So it’s definitely still happening. But I think the fact we’ve engaged in Neighbourhood Watch so much has really helped crack down on it."

"So we’re still hearing about it," McCrea acknowledged, "but it’s a lot less than it used to be."

What else has helped the community is how those in charge of the group have kept the conversation civil by banning chatter about vigilantism and racism.

"I think the tone has really improved. People know what we’re doing is working. People know there’s that support network out there. They know how to deal with it. They know it’s moving in the right direction by following the lead we’ve set in this group."

McCrea said since they started, other groups around the city started their own crime-fighting online groups.

But not with the same kind of strict policies and controls.

"They just kind of rolled with it," McCrea said of the newer groups, "and let people come in and let arguments boil over and didn’t really moderate anything. And it really set the tone for animosity in those other groups. I think our group has been really positive and really has worked together to bring about this great change."

Of course, for obvious reasons, McCrea appreciates what the other online groups are trying to do.

"This is a Winnipeg problem," McCrea said. "We’ve cracked down in our neighbourhood, and we’ve shown what can kind of work. But the people who are doing this are still looking for opportunities all over the city. It’s something we have to work on as a city."

And, if I may, helping police help us isn’t really a property-crime issue.

All crime is about all people.

And, as McCrea, Brooker and both their crime-fighting teams have shown us, it works better when we work together.

gordon.sinclair@freepress.mb.ca

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