Shoppers cruising the aisles of Superstore this Black Friday were seeing men and women in blue, but city police insisted it was just business as usual.
"We’ve been doing the same thing for 15 years," said Winnipeg Police Service spokesperson Const. Rob Carver.
"I think the concern here is that the stories are going to get conflated somehow with officers (being stationed) at Liquor and Lotteries… If you remove Liquor and Lotteries from this, nothing has changed for the landscape in Winnipeg."
An explosion in thefts and violent incidents at Manitoba Liquor Marts has resulted in the introduction of beefed-up security measures and an increased police presence at many outlets.
Carver said city police routinely receive "special duty" requests from businesses such as Superstore and Costco, just as they do for Winnipeg Jets and Blue Bomber games.
"Often there is a level of security with public interaction that some group or agency or store believes that only a trained police officer could provide," Carver said. "And we’ve seen that with stores that have on-staff security, but will still want a police officer or a number of police officers."
Earlier this month, Police Chief Danny Smyth announced the temporary reassignment of 74 officers to deal with rising incidents of violent crime and allow for an expansion to the homicide unit, which has had 40 cases so far this year.
Carver said special duty assignments have no impact on the ability of the police service to do its job: officers do the work on their own time and all police costs are paid for by the requesting businesses or agencies.
"We are simply responding as we can," Carver said. "This does not impact staffing whatsoever and it is very clear in our regulations that it can’t."
While he couldn’t provide firm numbers, Winnipeg Police Association president Moe Sabourin said special-duty requests appear, anecdotally at least, to be on the rise.
"It’s just not limited to liquor stores – we hear it from all other retailers that thefts are rampant and they are trying to take some action to prevent loss of product and (provide) safety for their patrons and employees," Sabourin said.
"I’ve noticed it personally as well, you see more members that are signing up for extra duty," he said.
"At one time, special duty was limited to hockey games, football games, but now we’re seeing places of worship, especially some that may be targeted by certain groups asking for special duty, liquor stores, Superstores… It probably is advantageous for retailers, especially for a large retailer who’s losing thousands of dollars in product to have an officer working in their off-duty hours."
A Superstore spokesperson could not be reached for comment Friday afternoon.
At least one customer wasn’t happy with the grocery store chain’s decision to employ off-duty police for security. Michelle Pahtasay said she was shopping at the Superstore on Sargent Avenue Wednesday night when a police officer began following her down a grocery aisle.
"He came up right behind me and started sort of looking at random things, pretending he was shopping and clearing his throat," said Pahtasay, "He kept glancing up at me and I looked at him and it felt really uncomfortable … I didn’t really know what to say so (I) walked away and got what I needed. He put all his stuff down … and went past me at the cashier and he went through the front door to the office part of the store."
Pahtasay, 31, said she believes the officer targeted her because she is Indigenous, something that has only gotten worse with increased publicity around liquor store thefts.
"I was putting everything in the cart, I didn’t have any way of hiding anything, I wasn’t wearing baggy clothes or anything like that," she said. "I was really offended."
"It’s getting worse now that there are robberies all over the city," she said. "I can’t go to a store without being aggressively followed."
Pahtasay said she didn't think it was necessary that the store hire police for security.
"I know there are people brazenly going out there and they are stealing and they can be violent… but I was alone, I’m a female and I had groceries in my cart. I don’t see why the aggressiveness towards me was necessary to keep the store safe."