When Premier Brian Pallister complained a few weeks ago that he’s had his share of confrontations with people in downtown Winnipeg, he drew a few snickers.

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This article was published 1/8/2019 (693 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Opinion

When Premier Brian Pallister complained a few weeks ago that he’s had his share of confrontations with people in downtown Winnipeg, he drew a few snickers.

How could a guy who stands six feet, eight inches tall feel unsafe downtown?

Pallister made the comment when asked for his views on the proposed sale of Portage Place.

"I’m six-foot-eight and I like to go to Mountain Equipment Co-op," he said. "But I can tell you, I’ve had confrontational situations as a six-foot-eight man in that area."

The premier is not alone in his concerns about downtown safety. According to the City of Winnipeg’s most recent citizen survey (conducted in April and May), only 14 per cent said they feel safe walking downtown alone after dark. That’s down from 28 per cent in 2017 and 25 per cent in the two previous years.

 

People are feeling less safe in the downtown — at least at night — than they were a few years ago.

There’s a good reason for that. Violent crime in the area is on the rise. Winnipeg police data released last week shows that violent crime jumped 10 per cent in the area police call the Portage Avenue Districts.

That area of the downtown includes Portage Avenue from Main Street to the University of Winnipeg, the so-called Sports, Hospitality and Entertainment District on the south side of Portage, the Retail District (which includes Portage Place) and the Commercial District (primarily the area around Portage and Main). It’s the heart of downtown.

The jump in violent crime there isn’t a one-year blip, either. Violent-crime numbers in the area were 38 per cent above the five-year average.

Robberies were up 23 per cent, aggravated assault climbed 20 per cent and sexual assaults increased 28 per cent.

Police are feeling the effects; assaults against peace officers in the area rose 14 per cent to 33 in 2018 (nearly three assaults a month) and were 43 per cent above the five-year average.

Violent crime in the broader downtown category was down three per cent in 2018. But it was still 14 per cent higher than the five-year average.

 

Pallister said he would have more to say about downtown crime in the coming weeks. That likely means the Tories plan to unveil a justice-downtown safety platform of some kind in the upcoming provincial election campaign.

If they do, they will have an interested audience. The same city survey shows crime and policing is the No. 1 priority of Winnipeggers right now, at 51 per cent.

That was well ahead of roads and infrastructure, the second-highest priority (24 per cent) and transit (20 per cent).

There is no silver bullet to reducing crime in the city. Any meaningful election pledge to combat the city’s growing crime problem would have to include several pieces, including robust addictions programming. The growing methamphetamine crisis has consistently been identified by Winnipeg police Chief Danny Smyth as the main driver behind the spike in violent crime in recent years.

There is no silver bullet to reducing crime in the city. Any meaningful election pledge to combat the city’s growing crime problem would have to include several pieces, including robust addictions programming.

The province should also review prosecutions to ensure the worst, violent re-offenders are kept behind bars as long as possible.

No justice platform would be complete without offering solutions to some of the root causes of crime, such as poverty and family breakdowns.

The temptation may also be to increase funding to police. But policing has been well financed in recent years. Per capita funding for the Winnipeg Police Service has grown 11.5 per cent from 2013 to 2018.

What the province does need is a more effective strategy to relieve officers of non-traditional policing duties. Cops spend enormous amounts of time doing things that can often be done by health-care and social-service agencies, especially where addictions, mental health and child welfare are concerned.

Cops are trained primarily to respond to emergency calls, to keep the public safe and to investigate crimes. They’re not social workers and we shouldn’t expect them to be.

Justice hasn’t been a top-of-mind issue in recent elections (it was almost non-existent in the last provincial race). That’s partly because crime was falling until 2014.

But with Winnipeg’s violent-crime rate on the rise again, justice platforms will likely have a higher profile this time around.

tom.brodbeck@freepress.mb.ca

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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