Poor optics when police feel unsafe downtown
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 24/09/2022 (185 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
The Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce will try to promote a positive vision of the city’s core at a Tuesday luncheon presentation billed as State of the Downtown. The local police union shouldn’t expect an invitation to speak.
The Winnipeg Police Association has been on a high-profile campaign to describe, in alarming terms, that downtown is unsafe. How unsafe is it? So unsafe that police officers and civilian staff feel it’s too risky to walk between police headquarters at 245 Smith St. and their personal vehicles parked a block or two away.
WPA president Moe Sabourin said his association has tracked about 100 incidents linked to parking safety since 2015, including staff members and civilian police staff being threatened and chased into the building.
“Members have been stabbed, they’ve had firearms pulled on them and (people) attempted to shoot members,” said Sabourin.
The union’s depiction that makes downtown sound more like a battleground than an urban streetscape is undercutting several pro-Winnipeg organizations. One coalition of groups that plans to spend tens of millions of dollars to implement a plan called Winnipeg’s Downtown Recovery Strategy is currently devising a marketing campaign to improve the perception of the city’s core.
The civic boosters trying to lure people back downtown after the pandemic-caused evacuation are not about to adopt the slogan “Downtown: a place where even police feel unsafe.”
Even if we suspect Sabourin’s generalization about police unease on downtown streets was perhaps exaggerated to bolster his attempt to score a good parking deal for the union members he is paid to represent — an effort that was successful on Thursday — it’s still disconcerting.
If officers and civilian staff feel it’s risky to walk downtown for a few minutes, how safe should the rest of us feel? People interested in the answer to this question might include students at downtown campuses, people who emerge onto nighttime streets after events at Canada Life Centre and the many people waiting downtown for city buses.
By training and by temperament, police officers should be better able than most other pedestrians to cope with dangerous situations. Even when they’re off-duty in street clothes and with their weapons safely stored, even when they’re targeted because they’re entering or leaving police headquarters, officers still have their skills and experience to handle encounters with people who are looking for trouble.
They know how to read the body language of suspicious pedestrians, how to de-escalate volatile situations and, as a last resort, how to use force to defend themselves and others. It’s also likely that if they need to call the nearby police headquarters for backup, help would arrive with utmost haste when the request came from a colleague.
In short, if anyone should feel safe on downtown streets, it should be police officers, even when they’re not on the job.
Unfortunately, city council agreed this week to give police exclusive use of a secured floor of the Millennium Library parkade. They can rent all 264 parking stalls on a single floor at the standard rate of $275 per space per month.
It’s a rotten deal for the public, in my opinion. Taxpayers will be on the hook for about about $95,600 of lost revenue annually, and about $200,000 of capital costs to modify the parkade floor to give exclusive card access to WPS members. Also, the public will lose access to the parking stalls that were welcome when downtown is crowded for events such as big-name concerts and Jets games.
It’s disappointing councillors didn’t try harder to help police find other ways to feel safe downtown. They could have started by exploring the solutions used by the majority of the public that manages to cope without the privileged protection of a bunker-like parkade floor.
Both the University of Winnipeg and Red River College have programs called SafeWalk, where campus security officers will escort students and staff to their personal vehicles and bus stops. While it would be peculiar for police to introduce such as program — $100,000-a-year police constables might feel it’s demeaning to request escorts from security officers who earn less and have less training — the system works well for university students.
Another option for police officers who feel it’s unsafe to leave their vehicles downtown would have been to leave their personal vehicles at home and take the bus. As an added benefit, waiting at bus shelters that have been commandeered by people who suffer from addictions and mental illness could expose the officers to social problems in a direct manner that could better inform their policing of Winnipeg streets.
After all, police should play a prominent role in making the streets safe. If they feel it’s dangerous out there, their duty is to do something about it.
Carl DeGurse is a member of the Free Press editorial board.
Senior copy editor
Carl DeGurse’s role at the Free Press is a matter of opinion. A lot of opinions.