Three police chiefs from the Pembina Valley joined their peers from across Manitoba and the Assistant Commissioner for the RCMP for a roundtable discussion recently hosted by Premier Wab Kinew. The invite list included Brad Neduzak, Chief of Police for the Morden Police Service, Ryan Hunt, Chief of Police for the Winkler Police Service and Dan Defer, Chief of Police for the Altona Police Service.
Prompted by the Premier himself, the purpose of the discussion, according to all three chiefs, was so he could hear from each service about their respective challenges and concerns in order to try and address them as a collective.
Bail reform and increasing violent crime were at the top of the list province-wide, noted Chief Neduzak.
"We are all seeing changes in this area," he said. "Even for us, there are very few warrants that we execute that do not now have an element of illegal firearms attached to it. It is very commonplace for our searches to find illegal firearms along with the ammunition to go with those weapons. So, the release of serious offenders back into our communities only to have them reoffend is certainly challenging and unsafe for everybody concerned - officers and citizens alike."
Chief Defer added, encountering firearms during their work was nearly unheard of ten to fifteen years ago and says the increase in prevalence has added another element of danger to their jobs.
"And it's not just us. It's also, you know, the circle that these people are running in and there's firearms. So, there's always that presence of violence - persons purchasing or selling illegal substances, the people that they're dealing with or the persons that are buying. There's going to be firearms present."
Chief Hunt pointed to the recent Project Hat Trick executed by all three police departments.
"We seized five firearms in that and, you know, five/six years ago we wouldn't have got any firearms. So, that's become a big concern in our area."
He also raised the issue of consequences for criminals.
"I sometimes think they're a little too lenient. I think a little harsher consequences would work in preventing recidivism and repeat offenders."
While he couldn't begin to hazard a guess for the increased prevalence of firearms they are seeing, Chief Hunt does think the trend goes hand-in-hand with the growing drug and addictions scenarios his officers are encountering, especially with methamphetamine where he says they deal with a lot of psychosis.
"People that use meth typically feel like they have to protect themselves. So, there is the possibility that they're reaching out for firearms to protect themselves, which is which is concerning. Somebody that's dealing with meth-induced psychosis, they're seeing things that aren't actually there, so they see a police officer coming to talk to them and they could very well think that somebody is coming to cause them harm. So, it is definitely concerning, and our officers have to always keep that in the back of their mind when they're dealing with people like this."
Meantime, addictions and mental health was another common theme brought up among Manitoba's police chiefs during the roundtable. That includes the resources needed to address these issues, added Chief Hunt.
"I think if there was more resources for mental health issues, that would be fantastic, even just in our community. We do have a mental health facility here, but we find, on occasion, when we have a subject at the hospital under the Mental Health Act that there sometimes isn't room for them and then that requires us to sometimes stay at the hospital for long periods of time until they find space for them."
Chief Neduzak says the entire group agreed that the amount of time and police resources being spent on mental health issues and patients could be a addressed in a more effective and efficient manner.
"Police are not mental health workers, and although we receive some training in this area, we feel that the best interest of the patients are not being addressed," he said. "There has been legislation passed to have institutional safety officers in our healthcare facilities, but that seems to be taking more time to implement than it than we hoped. It is not uncommon for police to spend anywhere from a few hours to a few days around the clock guarding patients, which takes police off the streets and away from their regular duties. So, we definitely want to see some changes to that sooner or later."
For Chief Defer, the solution lays within multiple sectors.
"It's not just law enforcement, it's the healthcare side. Everyone needs to get together and kind of come to some sort of resolution on what's best and how to proceed," he said. "[...] and then the overall the big picture. What can be done so that we aren't seeing this person again, you know, a month later, two months later, There's so much more involved in this outside of law enforcement."
The third common concern raised during the session, noted the chiefs, was new officer recruitment.
According to Chief Neduzak, the number of new recruits applying to become police officers is declining.
"We have been fortunate in our service, and I think in our area with Morden, Winkler and Altona, where we have had the resources allowing us to begin to branch out into some specialized areas such as our Regional Support Tactical Team, our Regional Crisis Negotiation Unit and K-9. Recently, with our (Morden's) Community Resource Officer working within our schools and alongside 500 Stephen St. and the Community Mobilization program, we have seen huge benefits, and these are all programs that are extremely beneficial to our community and the service that we would like to see continue. However, this is all contingent on staffing and resources. If we lose a member to retirement or to illness or injury, we have to pull individuals off those specialized units. So, we need to ensure we have a solid recruitment program and succession plan in place so that we are able to continue providing quality policing to the citizens of our community."
Chief Hunt added some Canadian police departments are going as far as offering large signing bonuses to new recruits.
All three chiefs say they left the roundtable feeling optimistic.
"You had a good discussion and there was some good topics there to maybe delve deeper into. It was really good to the Premier to reach out to us and have this meeting. I thought it showed a good willingness to work with the police services across the province and I really think that's a good step forward in working to deal with the crime problem in the province, to be able to have that communication from the top," said Chief Hunt.
Chief Neduzak echoed that sentiment, calling it a privilege to be invited.
"That is the first time we've ever been invited to sit around the table and have a discussion with the Premier. So, you know, very much appreciated and we thank him for that."
Chief Neduzak added, Premier Kinew took the time to listen, to ask a lot of questions and took copious notes.
"It was very obvious he wasn't doing this just to check off a box that he needed to speak to us."
While no promises were made at the end of the meeting, Chief Defer said he is hopeful this initial discussion is a sign of things to come in the future.
View the related articles below for just a few examples of what local police have dealt with just this year.