December 10, 2019

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No easy way to fight rising crime

Opinion

It seems almost everyone has a solution to the rash of robberies plaguing Manitoba liquor stores these days.

Whether it’s giving security guards more authority to apprehend thieves, having more police on site, putting products behind a secure counter, or bringing in tougher jail sentences for repeat offenders, there’s been no shortage of "easy" answers in recent weeks.

Premier Brian Pallister jumped into the fray Thursday, warning would-be thieves they better watch out, because authorities will hunt them down and prosecute them to the fullest extent of the law — as if that’s some new feature of the Canadian justice system.

Shoplifting is not new, and it will not be eradicated. Retail outlets have always balanced the goal of maximizing sales through free-roaming stores with the need to protect themselves from theft.

The cost of retail theft is incorporated into pricing; most retailers don’t talk about it publicly because they don’t want to encourage it.

The terrorization that occurred Wednesday at the Tyndall Market Liquor Mart was different.

Police dusts for prints as they investigate the robbery at the Liquor Mart on Keewatin Avenue. (John Woods / Winnipegt Free Press)

Police dusts for prints as they investigate the robbery at the Liquor Mart on Keewatin Avenue. (John Woods / Winnipegt Free Press)

The unprovoked assaults on staff (captured by security cameras and circulated on social media) weren't just about stuffing bottles of vodka into duffle bags — they were a reflection of Winnipeg’s growing violent crime problem.

The situation has left Manitoba Liquor & Lotteries with no choice but to take the drastic step of demanding customers show identification before they enter one of its Winnipeg stores.

The bigger picture of violent crime in the city won’t change; it is on the rise in Winnipeg. If thugs aren’t terrorizing staff or patrons in a Liquor Mart, they’ll be doing it elsewhere.

Winnipeggers have been through this many times in the past, including when violent crime rates were higher than they are today. There were no silver bullets on how to solve it then; there are none now.

What led to the sharp decline in violent crime in Winnipeg from 2009 to 2015, before it began to climb again, is as debatable as what to do about it today.

There have always been two schools of thought on the issue.

The Tory premier says to stop treating criminals as victims and using poverty as an excuse for why people commit violent acts. The Opposition NDP says to focus more on the "root causes," such as poverty, disenfranchisement, and the trauma facing criminals.

The problem with the latter is it doesn’t provide a solution to the immediate public safety issue. Even if government and social service agencies were able to solve some of the root causes of crime, it would take time. It wouldn’t stop the next group of thugs from terrorizing people in public places in the coming days, weeks or months.

We can’t expect to solve the problem solely by locking people up, either. Police are arresting and charging alleged liquor store thieves. Some of the worst ones are getting jail terms, as they should be; unfortunately, some of them rob again once they get out.

If they refuse the rehabilitative and treatment opportunities available to them while in custody (as many do), the justice system has no choice but to lock them up again for longer periods of time.

It may be some of the more dangerous offenders should be subject to longer sentences — they can’t commit crimes while they’re behind bars. But they’ll be released into the community eventually. The courts can’t keep them there forever.

The situation has left Manitoba Liquor & Lotteries with no choice but to take the drastic step of demanding customers show identification before they enter one of its Winnipeg stores.

Besides, while they’re incarcerated, there’s always a new generation of offenders to come along, such the ones Wednesday at the Tyndall Market Liquor Mart.

So Pallister is right, but he’s wrong. And the NDP is right, but also wrong.

The steps Manitoba Liquor & Lotteries are taking are, for the most part, the right ones.

Forcing everyone who enters the store to show identification at a security station will make stores safer for staff and customers. There are many downsides, but the Crown corporation has no choice.

It won’t eradicate shoplifting. But it’s probably the best it can do at this point.

tom.brodbeck@freepress.com

Tom Brodbeck

Tom Brodbeck
Columnist

Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.

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