The Winnipeg Police Service (WPS) says its officers used less force in 2021 than in previous years.
Officers either used physical force or presented a weapon to gain compliance in 699 incidents last year, according to a use-of-force report to the Winnipeg police board.
That’s down from 748 instances in 2020, and a 6 per cent decrease compared with the five-year average of 825, according to the WPS.
The use of force incidents make up for a small fraction of all calls for service, the report states.
Police Chief Danny Smyth deferred comment until after Friday’s police board meeting at City Hall.
Christian Leuprecht, a professor at the Royal Military College and Queen’s University in Kingston, about 265 km east of Toronto, who specializes in police and security issues, said it’s important to consider police reform and transformation when discussing using of force.
Police have a role in diverting those who may have force used against them to other types of social services, he said, adding that governments across Canada have been divesting social services for decades.
“Police, in many ways, have had to bear the brunt of cuts to social services because there have been fewer opportunities to divert high-risk individuals to other programs where you then avoid having an altercation.”
Leuprecht said trying to get to zero use of force is “unrealistic” because “there will always be circumstances where we need a very highly-trained, highly-paid professional to intervene where people are simply a risk to themselves, or a risk to the public.”
“Many times, the people on which use of force is being deployed are people who are previously known to police and to social services. So the use of force is an indication of the failure of the system,” he said.
“The use of force data is an impetus to urge more rapid police reform and transformation to ensure that we can align better with evolving public expectations.”
The use of guns
About 21 per cent of the 699 incidents involved using or suggesting the use of an officer’s gun, according to the report.
Most of those instances involved “aggravated active aggression,” which the report describes as volatile behaviour that could cause injury or death to officers, the person involved, or bystanders. The report states this kind of behaviour has increased over the past two years, and attribute that to meth use.
“Individuals under the influence of methamphetamine often have a high tolerance to pain and are far less responsive to de-escalation techniques, including verbal and physical.”
The report states there were no officer-involved shootings, nor fatalities as a result of use of force in 2021, but 73 officers were hurt and 170 other people were hurt during these use-of-force instances.
Police board needing specifics, says expert
The Police Accountability Coalition, a grassroots group representing more than 90 Winnipeg community organizations calling for greater action to address police violence and systemic racism, has called for a 10 per cent reduction in the police service’s budget. Its members want that money reallocated to organizations that can address the root causes of crime.
No one from the coalition was immediately available to comment, but the group has advocated against discriminatory use of force against Black, Indigenous and people in colour.
Leuprecht said Winnipeg police are among the most transparent law enforcement agencies in Canada when it comes to use of force data.
However, without specific direction to reduce the amount of force from the city’s police board, it’s hard to tell if the 2021 decrease is the result of a concerted effort to use force less, or another variable, he said.
“It’s no surprise that those communities who feel over-policed… would be dismayed because their main instrument to effect change in policing is through the board and through the strategic plan.”
The police board’s strategic plan states there is “public attention on use of force and de-escalation,” but that use of force is sometimes required by law.
There is no explicit call from the police board for the service to reduce use of force, but the board’s chair Coun. Markus Chambers (St. Norbert-Seine River) said “that’s always an objective.”
“That is probably something we can communicate better,” Chambers said in an interview.
He’s pushed for more courses like racial bias training for officers, which could cut down on the use of force, he said.
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