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Winnipeg police are so busy there’s often no time to nab suspects, chief says

Crime Wave – Police reach their breaking point
WATCH: Violent crime, the meth crisis, Liquor Mart robberies and property crime are stretching Winnipeg police to the breaking point, says the city's police chief.

In the first story of a three-part series on the human toll of crime in Winnipeg, police Chief Danny Smyth says the city’s current spike in crime is so overwhelming that police often don’t have time to make prompt arrests in cases like theft. Read the second and third stories here, or watch Global News’ full crime special.

Winnipeg police Chief Danny Smyth is a man managing a force under siege.

The numbers have popped up in numerous news stories for the past two years. Crime spikes of 300 per cent. A record-tying 41 homicides at the time of publishing. Meth, opioid abuses up. Fentanyl deaths. Property crime, store and liquor mart thefts turning violent.

Crime Wave: Property crime spike
Crime Wave: Property crime spike

The police service is strained, says Smyth, and it’s something he’s been saying since he took over as chief in 2016.

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Global News reporter Joe Scarpelli recently went on a ride-along with police. When he got into the cruiser with an officer, the queue for calls was sitting at 40.

READ MORE: $100K granted to community groups for safety and crime prevention — Winnipeg mayor

By the end of the shift, we’re still sitting at about 40 calls in the queue for the North End,” says Scarpelli. “And I’m told that was a slow night.”

Smyth agrees.

“At one point this year, we were brushing up into 300 calls, service or citywide, not just in the north end. That’s a real busy night. You know, any we keep it down to 100 … that’s manageable at this point.”

“There is no other jurisdiction in Canada and that’s carrying a queue like we are.”

Queue waves

This isn’t the first time the Winnipeg Police Service (WPS) has dealt with a severe backlog in calls. Smyth describes it as coming in waves.

So we had a wave like this about 10 years ago, 12 years ago, and we made some changes. Then, it seemed to have a good effect and lowered the queue. And now it’s crept back up again.”

READ MORE: Violent crime spike prompts Winnipeg police to reassign front lines, will impact public services

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While correlation isn’t causation, says Smyth, he points to retail theft, meth and resulting well-being calls as a major source of the queue problem.

“You’re seeing an amplification of all of those things … we’re getting a lot of check on well-being type of calls,” he says, noting missing persons is another big issue.

So you’re seeing a lot of different calls and I think it’s amplifying both from crime-related calls to things that are not crime-related.”

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That queue is preventing officers from doing things like arresting repeat offenders.

Our investigators have a queue of people that they could arrest on a daily or weekly basis that we just simply don’t have the time to get out to … We know the people we need to pick up. It’s just a question of getting to it now.”

READ MORE: Nearly 500 Winnipeg police officers to be hired by stores to prevent theft in December

Some of the recent initiatives taken on by Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries (MBLL) makes Smyth hopeful the wave of thefts — and, therefore, calls — will help bring numbers down.

The MBLL recently installed a secured entrance at the Tyndall Park Liquor Mart, which was reportedly the site of a theft that saw a clerk punched in the face. The alleged thief then went on an abusive rampage through the nearby mall before being tackled and held by witnesses for police.

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“I think we’re at a point now where we just need to adapt our … retail models now to take this kind of behaviour into consideration,” says Smyth.

Mental strain

The WPS has more mental health supports now than when Smyth started as an officer, he says.

They include a behavioural health unit, a peer support unit, a full-time psychologist and mandatory check-ups, says Smyth.

READ MORE: ‘Tough on crime’ is not the answer to fixing Winnipeg’s inner-city meth issues — report

“They’re pretty robust in our … organization, even when we run into a critical incident. It’s a mandatory check-in,” he says.

“We care a great deal about the wellness of our of our members.”