In measured but passionate tones, leaders from a community coalition calling for increased police accountability laid out accusations Thursday of racial profiling by the Winnipeg Police Service, random checkstops and carding of members from visual minority communities.
The allegations from the Police Accountability Coalition came during a meeting of the Winnipeg Police Board on Thursday, and were accompanied by demands for more civilian oversight of the city’s police service, a cut to its budget and an end to the use of certain tactics.
There was also a call for the introduction of body cameras for officers.
The newly formed Police Accountability Coalition represents a group of more than 90 Winnipeg community organizations who have come together to affirm their support of the Black Lives Matter movement, according to a Thursday news release.
Coalition member Dorota Blumczynska, who is also the executive director of the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization of Manitoba (IRCOM), said she and some of her staff met last year with Winnipeg police Chief Danny Smyth, senior officers and regular members of the WPS.
The officers were told “two young Black leaders” at IRCOM had been arbitrarily stopped by police, asked for identification, and told by officers “they couldn’t possibly own the vehicle they were driving,” Blumczynska said.
They were stopped “not once, not twice, but multiple times.”
Those were IRCOM staff members who drove kids to sports and community centres, and facilitated nutrition programs, she told the police board.
She said the response she got was that “carding was a problem in Toronto — we don’t do that in Winnipeg,” and that Winnipeg police have policies against arbitrary stops.
She wants to see examples of policy review or changes as a result of the complaints she heard.
“I would like to hear what actions took place,” Blumczynska said. “What we had to say [to police] was left at the door when the service left the building.”
Louise Simbandumwe, the co-director of Supporting Employment and Economic Development (SEED) Winnipeg, told the police board her organization tries to avoid calling police when it encounters a difficult situation with a client or at its offices.
“Sad to say, over the years my trust [in the police] has been eroded,” she said.
Simbandumwe told the board police officers are not equipped to de-escalate situations involving problems like mental health issues.
“There is cynicism out there,” that she and other SEED staff members have heard about police conduct, she warned the board.
“There is mistrust out there.”
Police chief denies profiling, checkstops
Police Chief Danny Smyth told reporters after the meeting people were “entitled to their views,” but denied accusations of racism, or use of tactics such as checkstops or profiling by Winnipeg police.
“I don’t agree with their views. We are part of the community. We’ve been part of the community from the inception. We are partners in the community,” Smyth said.
He acknowledged he’d heard the concerns Blumczynska and her staff had brought forward, but felt the service had reached out to IRCOM appropriately. He did, though, open the door to further investigation by an outside body.
“If that means a formal investigation by [the Winnipeg police] professional standards [unit], or that means [we need to] determine where our communication broke down, that’s what those relationships are intended to do.”
Responding to the Police Accountability Coalition’s suggestion of a 10 per cent budget cut for the police service, Smyth said that would force a serious conversation about what parts of the service should go.
“It is about cutting positions — so do we want to give up traffic? Do we want to give up investigations? Do we want to give up community support?”
The police chief was also lukewarm on the idea of putting body cameras on officers, saying he was “open to the idea” but warned it would be expensive (perhaps costing $8 million) and wouldn’t offer a “panacea” to concerns about the activities of police on patrol.
Privacy issues and other concerns could limit what the cameras captured, he said.
Police board chair Markus Chambers, who is relatively new to the role, accepted the submissions from the Police Accountability Coalition as concerns to take seriously.
“If the community is saying these events are happening, we have to take that as credible information, and have to respond in a meaningful way,” the St. Norbert-Seine River councillor said.
Chambers was cautious on a 10 per cent budget cut for the WPS, however, saying rising crime stats, a methamphetamine and opioid crisis, and other issues would make that kind of reduction a challenge.
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