November 18, 2019

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Rationale for video pilot project remains unclear

Editorial

A unique online video experiment by the Winnipeg Police Service presents more questions than answers at its initial stage. The public might be more inclined to support the concept if police explained what they hope to achieve by encouraging homeowners to provide their own video assessment when they are victims of crime.

Winnipeg police enter video age of crime scene assessment

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MAGGIE MACINTOSH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS						</p>																	<p>Chief of Police Danny Smyth presented the police board with an update on the service's guns and gangs program Friday. Smyth says he believes the virtual assessment pilot will relieve some of the break-and-enter forensic assessment wait times for citizens, which can be up to two days.						</p>
MAGGIE MACINTOSH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Chief of Police Danny Smyth presented the police board with an update on the service's guns and gangs program Friday. Smyth says he believes the virtual assessment pilot will relieve some of the break-and-enter forensic assessment wait times for citizens, which can be up to two days.

Posted: 13/09/2019 7:00 PM

Winnipeg police are testing the use of online video platforms for crime scene assessments — a move believed to be a first in the country — in the hopes of responding to break-ins in a timelier matter.

It can take up to three days for police to do an initial crime scene assessment after a break-in is reported, due to an "unprecedented" number of calls in recent years, according to the Winnipeg Police Service. The queue, which includes but is not limited to break-and-enters, often has 200 calls waiting for response.

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The pilot project works like this: after a home or business break-in — a crime that unfortunately is classified as routine in Winnipeg — victims are given two choices. They can join a queue of up to 200 cases of all types waiting for police attention, or they can opt for the experimental alternative and, using Facetime or Google Duo, transmit the break-in evidence to police remotely, possibly freeing the WPS from having to make a house call.

As WPS Chief Danny Smyth told reporters Friday, such video calls could be expanded to assess victims of other crimes, including minor assaults.

The Winnipeg experiment is believed to be the first of its kind in Canada, which surprised some observers because Winnipeg police have never been accused of being on the forefront of technological innovation.

This is the force that talked for several years about requiring officers to wear body cameras, the so-called "badge-cams" that are already mandatory for police in several Canadian cities, including Calgary and Victoria. Winnipeg dropped the idea of police body cameras in 2016.

This reluctance to require officers to wear body cameras is one reason why eyebrows were raised when Mr. Smyth unveiled scant details of how Winnipeg will pioneer a video method of policing the most common of crimes.

When the WPS decided against mandatory body cameras, it rejected a solid body of research that proves the cameras’ effectiveness in police work, which includes providing valuable video evidence in criminal trials and also when handling citizen complaints that eventually end up with the Independent Investigation Unit, which probes all serious incidents involving police in Manitoba.

But because the experiment allowing citizens to provide videos is unique, its advantages and disadvantages can’t be gleaned from the practices of police in other areas. Until the WPS elaborates, the public is left guessing on the motivation and expected outcomes of the pilot project.

WPS Chief Danny Smyth told reporters Friday, such video calls could be expanded to assess victims of other crimes, including minor assaults. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Free Press files)

WPS Chief Danny Smyth told reporters Friday, such video calls could be expanded to assess victims of other crimes, including minor assaults. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Free Press files)

For example, is the purpose to solve more break-in crimes? That seems unlikely. While it may be traumatic for homeowners to awake and discover their privacy and property have been violated, it happens so often in Winnipeg that routine break-ins are afforded low priority in the triage-like categorization of police responses. The vast majority of break-ins get little more than the minimum level of investigative attention, and arrests for property crimes are infrequent.

This is not to dismiss the pilot project; to its credit, it seems to be proceeding in a way that respects the preferences and privacy of citizens.

Victims of break-ins who are unable or unwilling to transmit video evidence to police can opt to have officers arrive and do an initial assessment in person, although they may not arrive for up to three days because of the call backlog.

Also importantly, police say they won’t record or store the online-submitted videos, which should ease the privacy and security concerns of citizens who are reluctant to provide what amounts to online tours of the interior of their homes and businesses.

The experiment warrants cautious support. But if police hope to extend the pilot project, the decision should be solidly backed up with evidence about how precisely it helps police live up to their motto: "A culture of safety for all."

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board.

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