Winnipeg police use of force slightly increased, report itself met with criticism

By | June 6, 2020

A Winnipeg Police Service report states less than one per cent of calls for service in 2019 required use of force, but some say that doesn’t show the whole story.

Officers in Winnipeg either used force or presented a weapon to gain compliance 857 times last year, says the report submitted to the city’s police board by WPS Chief Danny Smyth.

That’s 100 more incidents where police used force like batons, stun guns or firearms than what was recorded in 2018, the report says.

The annual use of force report — submitted to the chair of the Winnipeg Police Board on May 15 and included in the board’s upcoming meeting on Monday — says last year’s incidents are still on pace with the city’s five-year average of 858 for use of force incidents.

Out of 231,668 dispatched calls for police service last year, 0.37 per cent involved officers using force, the report says.

“To put this number in perspective, there is approximately one use of force encounter for every 270 calls for service,” Smyth wrote.

The report also states the WPS received three complaints about use of force. One was abandoned, one was not sustained by evidence and the other was determined to be unfounded.

Report a ‘global overview’ on use of force

Steve Summerville says he’s “not alarmed” by the report’s numbers. Summerville, a retired staff sergeant with the Toronto Police Service, now does expert testimony across Canada about police use of force.

A report like this is useful for keeping track of trends or anomalies over time, he said, but doesn’t get into the details of each case.

“It’s just a global overview of the numbers,” he said.

Overall, Winnipeg’s use of force numbers “seem to be consistent, if not probably a little bit lower than some other police services,” said Summerville.

“We’re not in high numbers. We’re not 30 per cent of the time. We’re not 50 per cent of the time. We’re a little over a quarter of a per cent,” he said.

“Does that in itself indicate a challenge or problem? In my humble opinion, I would say no.”

‘Glaring issue’ with report, says lawyer

But 857 cases of use of force is “a scary number,” according to Brooks Arcand-Paul, the vice president of the Indigenous Bar Association (IBA).

“When we’re talking about policing, we aim for a use of force at a level of zero, or very close to zero.”

Arcand-Paul said the report’s one “glaring issue” is the absence of demographics about the people who’ve had force used on them, noting the deaths of three Indigenous people killed in April this year as well as the shooting death of Machuar Madut.

“When Winnipeg is viewed in character as one of the most racist cities in Canada, police services should have more training and an understanding that they need to de-escalate situations when they have potential incidents with Indigenous or black individuals,” said Arcand-Paul.

“It just highlights the fact that Winnipeg has an issue with racism that they aren’t able to even broach on.”

On Saturday, Const. Jay Murray of the WPS told CBC News any context to the use of force incidents, including demographics or incident location “is not currently provided as part of that report” and deferred to the board meeting on Monday.

The IBA has publicly called for a provincial inquiry into Eishia Hudson’s death. The 16-year-old Indigenous teen was shot and killed by Winnipeg police in April after police said a group of teens robbed a Liquor Mart and started a chase.

Arcand-Paul says the IBA has been in touch with the City of Winnipeg about this, but hasn’t heard from the provincial government.

Report ‘incredibly incomplete’, says professor

The format of reporting is what causes concern for Bronwyn Dobchuk-Land. The University of Winnipeg criminal justice professor says using calls for service to measure use of force isn’t accurate.

Bronwyn Dobchuk-Land, a criminal justice assistant professor at the University of Winnipeg, says police self-reporting on use of force doesn’t paint the whole picture. (John Einarson/CBC)

“There’s a huge number of police interactions that happen with the public that aren’t responses to calls for service,” she said.

“It’s often in those instances that happen behind closed doors and in private homes, or in back alleys where we should be more concerned about police use of force. That is the kind of thing that would not show up in the statistics in that report, which are based on self reports of contacts with the public.”

Dobchuk-Land says the report is “incredibly incomplete,” also citing the lack of information on who the use of force was used upon.

The definition of use of force needs to be revisited, she said — an idea that’s coming into play after unarmed Minneapolis, black man George Floyd died under the knee of a white police officer.

“The analysis of how much use of force is appropriate shouldn’t be a technical project left to police professionals. It is something that needs to be negotiated in the public sphere,” she said.

“It’s a political question and we all need to be involved in a discussion about how much use of force we’re willing to tolerate from the police and from the state in general.”

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