One day, while working in downtown Winnipeg, I left my job for a dentist appointment just a few blocks away.
In a rush to get there on time, I cut through a parking lot and was headed down a short alley to the next street. I was just walking along, minding my own business, when I noticed a pair of feet enter my field of vision. I looked up just in time to see a complete stranger throwing a punch at my head.
Instinct and self-preservation kicked in and I managed to forestall him — and his equally drunken friend who happened along seconds later and took his buddy’s side out of instinct — long enough that a bypasser intervened. Shaken — but not stirred — I continued on to the dentist with the adrenaline pumping through my veins.
Upon arriving I used their telephone to report the incident to the Winnipeg Police Service. The response was, to say the least, underwhelming. An official took a report, asked if I was sure I wasn’t injured, recommended consulting a medical professional to be certain, gave me an incident number and wished me the best. I never so much as saw a police officer, despite having just been violently assaulted.
This was a dozen years ago, before the methamphetamine crisis had really taken hold in the city. In recent years, the situation has grown worse, with overburdened police triaging calls and responding in person to only the most pressing. For evidence of this in action, note the media reports of brazen swarming robberies of liquor stores in the province’s capital.
These days in Winnipeg only the most serious of crimes warrant a major police presence. Most property crimes are simply reported for insurance purposes, if they’re reported at all.
It’s led to some situations where it’s hard to tell if you’re starring in an episode of “Candid Camera.” Take the break-in at East End Meats & Sausage in the Transcona neighbourhood this past June. Store manager Chris Campbell arrived one morning to find thieves had tunnelled through a wall of the business and made off with sausage, some change, and a few meat-cutting tools.
According to media report, Campbell described himself as “flabbergasted” that any thief would go to those sorts of lengths for such a meagre haul. But his real consternation was for police response times, after he called in the crime and was told officers would get there in “a few days.”
This isn’t about criticizing the Winnipeg Police Service; its officers face serious challenges. The city is on pace for a record number of homicides in the current calendar year. Officers are rushing from crisis to crisis, plugging holes in the dike.
But it might be something for rural Manitobans to keep in mind when they ponder their own climbing crime rates. As our Alexis Stockford reports in our Nov. 14 issue, the topic has been coming up at regional meetings of the Manitoba Beef Producers. At the Baldur meeting, a resolution calling for more police in rural areas was passed with overwhelming support.
Those putting forward the request have valid reasons for their concerns, noting an uptick in burglaries, thefts and vandalism. Communities surrounding the bigger centres are highly suspicious there are organized efforts to send criminals into the countryside.
The Somerset Hotel was even robbed at gunpoint in the early afternoon Oct. 22.
What was interesting though, is what some of the concerned members characterized as a slow police response. One noted they could call the police and expect to wait at least an hour and a half for them to arrive.
That’s not ideal, but it’s also likely a response time the meat shop manager in Winnipeg would have welcomed.
This article wasn’t the only time Alexis Stockford delved into the question of rural crime. In the midst of the provincial election campaign she reported on a promise by the Progressive Conservatives to spend $2.8 million a year to fund 12 new officers on the ground and two analysts to support their efforts.
That promise was supported by statistics that showed high crime rates in rural Manitoba. But when she delved a bit deeper into the numbers she found a sharp north-south divide in the statistics, with the northern numbers skewing the overall figures. In fact, the study found the rural areas of southern Manitoba were among the safest in the province, with crime rates more than 16 per cent lower than the region’s urban centres.
Statistics are small comfort to anyone victimized by crime or to the sense of safety felt by others in the community. What this does suggest, however, is that crime isn’t an urban-rural issue. And it’s unlikely more police officers, or quicker response times, are anything more than stop-gap measures.
Addressing the root causes, such as poverty, underemployment, and addictions, will take a concerted effort by politicians, community organizations and citizens in this province.
After all, we’re all in this together, as Manitobans.