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Better co-ordination of foot patrols, improved use of closed-circuit surveillance cameras and stronger enforcement of panhandling laws are among the recommendations of a report detailing ways to enhance downtown safety in Winnipeg.
The 46-page report from the Manitoba Police Commission, released Tuesday, recommends more study on the use of street lighting "to achieve a sense of public safety," and urges consideration of a public-education campaign on how to be street smart.
It also recommends the province and city conduct an audit of grant funding agreements for initiatives related to community safety and well-being. Current programming would be evaluated to ensure there is no overlap in services and programs are able to meet community needs.
Altogether, the report contains 27 recommendations that cover a wide variety of responses to improve downtown safety, including continued support for resources to address homelessness and poverty, improved mental health services and more treatment for substance abuse.
At a news conference, Justice Minister Cliff Cullen said the report signifies all levels of government and the private sector need to work together to address the issue.
"We have to bring our social services together, including our health sector... because we are dealing with complex issues," he said.
Manitoba Police Commission chairman David Asper said "a different tone" is needed when it comes to dealing with downtown safety.
"The tone has to be less, ‘I’m right and you’re wrong,' and more about trying things and being willing to admit when things don’t work and switch gears and try something else," he said.
The commission recommended the province look at amending the Highway Traffic Act to discourage panhandling on roadways and busy intersections.
It said the province should co-ordinate with the City of Winnipeg to review the current Obstructive Solicitation By-law to consider potential amendments to address panhandling in the downtown. It also urged the province to foster public education about panhandling and encourage support for organizations that help reduce poverty and homelessness.
Bronwyn Dobchuk-Land, an assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of Winnipeg, said it’s important to examine whose safety is being considered throughout the report. Rather than being aimed toward improving safety for vulnerable populations, including homeless or otherwise marginalized people, she said the recommendations are geared toward making downtown feel safer to people coming from other neighbourhoods to shop, eat, or attend a hockey game.
"All of these recommendations seem to have been crafted with (that group) in mind," said Dobchuk-Land, who researches community-level responses to crime.
She was also critical of the emphasis on partnership with business improvement zones, which signals the safety recommendations are being viewed as a means to increase profitability downtown, not necessarily the safety of vulnerable populations.
Kate Kehler, executive director of the Social Planning Council of Winnipeg, an organization which responded to the commission’s survey, said there are areas within the recommendations she agrees with, including support for mental health and addictions, as well as restorative justice options.
But Kehler found the language surrounding the "chronic offender designation" recommendation problematic. The report states offenders who continually accumulate new charges "choose to not avail themselves of treatment."
"That gives the impression there are a multitude of treatment options, and people are actively choosing not to engage with them, and that’s simply not the case," she said.
Besides Cullen and Asper, the news conference included Mark Chipman, executive chairman of True North Sports and Entertainment Ltd., Greg Burnett, director of safety initiatives with the Downtown Safety Partnership, and Kate Fenske, executive director of Winnipeg Downtown BIZ.
Cullen was asked why neither senior members of the Winnipeg Police Service nor civic politicians were invited to the event. He said both had been consulted during the preparation of the report and were aware of its release.
Police Chief Danny Smyth later took issue with that stance.
"The WPS executive was not notified of the press conference and received no invitation to attend today's conference," Smyth said in an afternoon email statement to media.
"The WPS executive had one meeting with the Manitoba Police Commission in October. The WPS provided information to the commission but was not asked to make recommendations. There has been no further contact or consultation since that meeting."
The police chief also expressed displeasure at the direction of the report's findings.
"The conclusion of the report stated... this is not a policing issue, and that the police should not be the lead agency. This statement comes as a surprise. The WPS remains committed to downtown safety and will continue to advance the strategy outlined in our strategic plan."
Meanwhile, Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman said Premier Brian Pallister has reached out to him on the issue of downtown safety and the two will continue discussions on the plan’s implementation.
"We spoke about it at a high level. I’m looking forward to reviewing it in greater detail," he said of the report
Opposition critics were quick to criticize the report for being incomplete and lacking public input.
NDP justice critic Nahanni Fontaine argued against a "heavy-handed, top-down approach in developing any type of provincial strategy."
She noted the police commission will be hosting six community-specific committee meetings — in Brandon, Dauphin, Thompson, Portage la Prairie, Selkirk and Winnipeg — a move she argued should have happened earlier.
Public input was sought through an online survey, which had 174 submissions, the commission said.
Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont was adamant government needs to invest in mental health care and addictions supports, rather than relying on the private sector or for-profit groups to pitch in.
"I have a lot of respect for Mr. (Mark) Chipman and for David Asper, but these are not problems that are going to be solved by the private sector. It’s not their job."
— with files from Aldo Santin, Ben Waldman, Jessica Botelho-Urbanski
Larry Kusch didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life until he attended a high school newspaper editor’s workshop in Regina in the summer of 1969 and listened to a university student speak glowingly about the journalism program at Carleton University in Ottawa.
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