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‘Theft and violence will not be tolerated’: Province boosts funding for Winnipeg retail theft initiative

An anti-theft initiative started on a temporary basis in Winnipeg last month is being extended through the summer with an additional $1.16 million in funding from the provincial government.

“While we will always offer a compassionate and heartfelt response to those who are struggling with mental health, with addictions, we cannot allow organized crime and chaos to operate unchecked in our communities,” Justice Minister Matt Wiebe said Wednesday at the funding announcement.

The province initially provided $387,000 to cover overtime for police units to focus on three key areas identified as retail theft hot spots — Osborne Village, the Exchange District and the West End. The four-week initiative ran from June 8 to July 5.

In that time, officers made more than 200 arrests and recovered thousands of dollars in stolen goods, Wiebe said.

Police also spoke with hundreds of store owners and staff, getting an idea of what was happening, and also provided tips to improve layout and better prevent crime, police Supt. Cam Mackid said.

The officers walking the neighbourhoods also logged hundreds of engagements with people that didn’t necessarily result in an arrest, Mackid said. That included dealing with people causing a disturbance or being a nuisance, such as refusing to leave a restaurant or store, or sleeping in doorways or on sidewalks.

“As important as the data, to me, is also the feedback that we’ve been receiving from businesses and from community members … that this initiative has made a real difference, helping them and their customers to feel safe again,” Wiebe said.

“What has become abundantly clear is that we need to continue these efforts throughout the summer months.”

A man in a suit speaks into microphones at an outdoor podium
Justice Minister Matt Wiebe says the violent crime and retail theft initiative has made a real difference. (Justin Fraser/CBC)

The latest funding will cover overtime for continued work until the end of August, he said.

“Theft and violence will not be tolerated,” Wiebe said.

Some high-profile businesses in Osborne Village, including the Starbucks, closed their doors in recent months amid safety concerns, and the Osborne Village Business Improvement Zone has previously told CBC News employers are worried about escalating violence in the neighbourhood.

Mayor Scott Gillingham said he has witnessed the crime and his son has experienced it.

“I’ll never forget being in one of our [city’s] stores with my wife a couple of years ago … and someone grabbed a whole armful of jackets and just walked out. I was very frustrated in that moment,” he said.

He’s heard many stories about young employees in their first work experience being threatened “for just trying to do their jobs,” he said.

“We can’t have that in our city. We can’t allow that. Years ago, I got a text from my son, who was working a part-time job, to say, ‘Dad, I’m OK, everyone’s OK, but we’ve just been victims of an armed robbery.’ As a parent, it gets you in the core … [and] too many parents in our city have experienced that.”

There is a common belief that retail theft is a victimless crime, but that is not true, Gillingham said. Those threatened employees are victims, he said, and when stores close because of crime, the whole community suffers.

WATCH | Winnipeg mayor says retail theft is not a victimless crime:

Retail theft is not a victimless crime, says Winnipeg mayor

2 hours ago

Duration 1:23

Mayor Scott Gillingham talks about the value businesses bring to communities and how , if they close, the loss impacts everyone.

“Businesses, and especially independent retailers and restaurants, bring character to the life of our neighbourhoods, and they help make our neighbourhoods destinations, not just places to pass through,” Gillingham said, highlighting the investment and employment they also bring.

“It’s important that these businesses, their employees and their customers, feel safe and feel heard.”

David Pensato, executive director of the Exchange District BIZ, said the program’s value has been “immeasurable.” Having officers walking, rather than passing through in cruisers, has engaged the community in a highly effective way by providing a sense of security and safety, he said.

“A pair of police officers walking down the street, checking in with businesses, meeting with residents, talking to visitors, that makes the difference. Those relationships are what matters,” he said.

One of those Exchange area business owners is Brian Scharfstein, whose Canadian Footwear store is at the corner of Adelaide Street and William Avenue.

The area is part of the city’s downtown, which is the heart and soul of the city but has suffered from a poor perception in recent years. Though his store hasn’t experienced a great deal of theft, it suffered along with others because of a perception that kept customers away.

That’s changing now, he said.

“Since the Winnipeg Police Service increased their presence downtown, we are absolutely seeing a reduction in incidents. These officers that we’re seeing are bringing trust and confidence to the people working in the area and the general public,” he said.

“We need to keep this going.”

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