‘Watch out criminals, here we come’: Retail crime task force unveiled in Manitoba

Nearly a year after soaring retail thefts made constant news headlines and the situation was called “the darkest time in Winnipeg history,” the Manitoba government has established a new retail crime task force.

“In the past three years, retailers have seen retail thefts increase by over 125 per cent, and violent crime targeted at businesses and employees is also on the rise,” Justice Minister Cliff Cullen said on Tuesday.

“Sometimes this retail crime leads to violent crime. Quite often these offenders are quite brazen in their behaviour. And we recognize as a government that more has to be done when it comes to this fight.”

The province has partnered with the private sector to create a task force that will find ways to combat the problem, Cullen said, noting a “COVID delay” for getting it launched.

Justice Minister Cliff Cullen said retailers in Manitoba have seen retail thefts increase by over 125 per cent in the past three years. (Global)

The task force includes representatives from Manitoba Justice, the Winnipeg Police Service, the RCMP, national, local and independent retailers, private security firms, Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries, Commissionaires Manitoba and the Retail Council of Canada.

The group will share best practices and seek out innovative ideas to address possible prevention, suppression and intervention strategies, a provincial news release stated.

It will also work to identify potential loss prevention strategies to address the root causes of retail theft, and review initiatives and programs that have been successful in other jurisdictions, Cullen said.

The creation of a task force was a recommendation of the Manitoba retail crime round table, hosted in January by six local business associations with more than 90 participants representing 68 private and public-sector organizations, Cullen said.

The reality is, this isn’t Billy taking a chocolate bar. It’s organized, it’s often part of complex criminal operations, it crosses borders and most importantly, it undermines community safety.– John Graham, task force co-chair

The task force is a “collaborative response to crime that is undermining the safety and viability of retailer stores across this province,” said John Graham, the Retail Council of Canada’s director of government relations for the Prairie region.

“What’s exciting is that this is the first time in Canada, that the Retail Council of Canada is aware of, that a co-ordinated, collaborative effort with all of the key people around the table will occur. Across Canada, retailers are watching Manitoba,” he said.

Graham, who is one of the co-chairs of the new task force, said the group will create a “road map ahead to make a difference” in tackling what has become a significant problem.

It will build a “country-leading strategy” that will be the envy of other provinces, he said.

“The reality is, this isn’t Billy taking a chocolate bar. It’s organized, it’s often part of complex criminal operations, it crosses borders and most importantly, it undermines community safety,” Graham said about retail theft.

“It’s also about a $200-million expense to retailers and ultimately consumers in this province.”

‘Scars are there’

The impacts of COVID-19 have had a devastating impact on many retailers and many businesses “are on life support,” Graham said.

“The scars are there, they’re real.”

While businesses are focused on surviving and creating healthy environments, the criminals are still attacking, Graham said. 

“They’re getting innovative. They’re using these distractions — our vulnerabilities — to create further pain for businesses.”

John Graham, co-chair retail crime task force, said retail theft is about a $200-million expense to retailers and ultimately, consumers, in Manitoba. (Global)

One challenge is that masks are being worn by a majority of people now, “where that was usually a clear sign that someone was coming in to commit a crime,” Graham said.

Staff are also focused more on cleaning and distancing and other issues related to COVID-19 practices, so they are preoccupied and unable to be as alert to crime, he said.

“The timing of this task force has never ever been more important,” he said.

Cullen said the task force is being funded with $25,000 from the Criminal Property Forfeiture Fund. Cash and proceeds seized from criminals and the sale of forfeited property are put into the fund, which is then used for police and community initiatives.

“So we’re taking money we’ve recovered from criminal activity and used it to fight crime,” Cullen said.

The task force was scheduled to meet for the first time at noon on Tuesday and Graham said he was looking forward to it.

“There are many opportunities to explore and much to do,” he said.

“I think we can say, watch out criminals, here we come.”

The province has also launched what it calls “an operations table” that brings law enforcement and justice personnel together with the goal of reducing the number of thefts and robberies from retailers.

“Our partnership with the Manitoba government is allowing us to better identify and apprehend chronic offenders involved in retail theft,” said Winnipeg police Insp. Shawn Pike.

Project Stop Lifting, a joint initiative of the Winnipeg Police Service and Manitoba Justice, has led to 74 arrests and 529 charges being laid since July 10. Nine of those arrested had at least 20 charges outstanding. One had 96, Pike said.

“These aren’t the one-off, first-time [offenders]. These are people who are habitual, who are continuing to target retail businesses throughout the province for personal gain, for organized crime gain,” he said.

The efforts of that initiative will be one of the things being monitored by the retail crime task force, whose members are:

  • John Graham, co-chair.
  • Shannon Martin, MLA, McPhillips, co-chair.
  • Scott Kolody, associate deputy minister for Manitoba Justice.
  • Michele Jules, executive director for the Manitoba Prosecutions Service.
  • RCMP Chief Supt. Rob Hill.
  • WPS Deputy Chief Jeff Szyszkowski.
  • Bryan Payne, Commissionaires Manitoba.
  • Damien Smith, district loss prevention officer for Rexall Pharmacy Group.
  • Brian Scharfstein, Canadian Footwear.
  • Shawn McGurk, director of corporate security and surveillance for Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries.
  • Scott Young, vice-president of Western Canada for Garda World security.
  • Rick Linden, professor of sociology and criminology at the University of Manitoba.

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