Advocates are warning about the dangers of shrinking this year’s holiday checkstop program in order to reallocate police resources to address a rise in violent crime.
On Nov. 8, Chief Danny Smyth announced the Winnipeg Police Service is making temporary changes to its workforce to staff downtown foot patrol units and address a backlog of homicides. So far this year, there have been 40 homicides — one shy of tying Winnipeg’s record.
Among the short-term adjustments, an undisclosed number of traffic officers will be reassigned to general and foot patrol duties.
"I was left shaking my head, to think: ‘Really?’" said Andrew Murie, chief executive officer of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. "Why would you do it at the holiday season? Why would you publicly announce it?
"It’s one thing to divert resources and nobody knows what’s going on, but to publicly announce it?"
Murie said of all the tactics used to deter drunk driving, sobriety checkpoints are the most effective — and without a robust program, he fears more people will get hurt this season.
During last year’s run, city police stopped 7,667 cars and administered 424 roadside breath tests, which resulted in 41 impaired driving-related charges. A total of 242 tickets were issued.
Last week, Smyth told reporters police expect to reevaluate the situation after the holiday season, or when a "manageable workload volume" resumes.
"These changes, I think, are necessary so that we can address the health and the wellness of our front-line officers, who have been put under a tremendous amount of strain, including our homicide and major crimes division," he said.
Winnipeg police declined to provide more details on the checkstop program adjustments.
Police recorded 439 impaired driving offences in 2018. Also last year, police laid two charges of drunk driving causing death.
"Drinking and driving is just as much of a crime as a murder," said Patricia Vancoughnett, a Winnipeg woman who was severely injured but survived a car crash she alleges happened when the driver was intoxicated. Her younger sister, Keri McIntyre, died in the collision about 30 years ago.
Both were children, ages seven and five, at the time. McIntyre’s name has since been added to a Winnipeg memorial for victims of drunk driving.
The festive checkpoint program is "so important and to so many people," Vancoughnett said. "There are so many victims — all the families, all the friends. Every name on that (memorial) stone has so many victims around it."
The decision to temporarily reduce this year’s program was announced days after Manitoba unveiled stricter impaired driving laws. Starting Dec. 16, police will have new powers to issue fines and impound vehicles after a roadside alcohol-screening test.
While MADD has lauded the province for the new penalties, Murie said they won’t be as effective if there are fewer officers patrolling Winnipeg streets.
Despite a reduced checkstop program, Sharra Hinton with Operation Rednose Winnipeg said her team will "keep doing what we do and give people an alternative" to impaired driving again this holiday year.
The free designated-driver program begins Nov. 29, and runs throughout the holidays. Volunteer drivers can be reached at 204-947-6673.
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.