Police defend robbery response after bakery owner was told officers might not get there until next day

Police are defending the length of time it took to respond to a recent robbery at a Winnipeg bakery — the owner says she was told officers might not show up until the next day — saying the service has to put calls in priority.

“We understand that these types of events … are traumatic events, and they’re very stressful times in people’s lives,” Insp. Gord Spado said at a news conference Thursday.

“But we have to be cognizant of the higher-priority calls, and that’s why we have a priority system.”

Using a first-call-in, first-response-out system is simply not realistic for policing, he said.

“As much as we’d love to be at every event as soon as possible … we have to deal with the life safety issues first.”

Around 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Menchie Finlay got a panicked call from her two employees at Cinnaholic, a bakery in a strip mall on McPhillips Street.

A surveillance video still shows a restaurant counter area
A woman walks away from the Cinnaholic counter after tossing the cash register onto the floor in a still from surveillance video. (Submitted by Colin Finlay)

A woman had pushed her way behind the counter and grabbed the cash register. She opened it, took out about $300 and threw the empty machine onto the floor, Finlay said.

Surveillance video viewed by CBC News shows the woman breaking through a small door that separates the area behind the counter from the public area.

Finlay’s two staffers rushed outside through a back door as the robbery was happening and called Finlay, who said to call 911. They did and were advised not to go back in, in case the thief was still there.

Finlay then rushed to the store and called 911 to ask if officers were on the way yet and what she should do. She was instructed by the dispatcher to check the store to make sure the thief was gone, she said.

“They made me check the bathroom, the fridges and [all the] nooks and crannies just in case she’s still hiding,” Finlay said.

“I asked them [911] ‘How long do you think the police are going [to take] to come?’ And she said, ‘It might be today or tomorrow, depending on how busy we are tonight.'”

A man in a white collared shirt and short grey hair stands at a podium with microphones.
Insp. Gord Spado says police have a 10-level priority system for calls. Using a first-call-in, first-response-out system is simply not realistic, he says. (Kevin Nepitabo/CBC)

Finlay didn’t know whether police needed to gather evidence, so she was worried about cleaning up.

“We ended up closing the store [for the rest of the day] because we don’t know what to do — whether they’re going to come or not,” Finlay said.

After some time, she saw two officers pull into the strip mall at a restaurant. She flagged them down.

Spado confirmed on Thursday that two officers who were going on their break took statements and filed the report on the robbery.

He took issue with information in stories by other media, in which Finlay’s husband, who is the co-owner, quoted the dispatcher as saying “We’ll send someone out if we’re not too busy.”

“The reporting of how that police response was characterized to the caller … was not exactly accurate,” Spado said.

Accurate articulation of events can be challenging because emotions are high, he said.

“They heard what they heard and that’s how that made them feel.”

He read from the transcript of the 911 call, which mirrored what Finlay said. The dispatcher also explained, “We can’t ever predict when those other emergencies come in,” which is why the possible response time was so vast.

The dispatcher said it was OK to leave and that Finlay would be called when officers were on the way.

“That’s to allow people to get on with their lives and get closure rather than sitting and waiting for a police response that has no timeline at that point,” Spado said. 

Finlay’s call was classified as a Priority 3 event on the police service’s scale of 10. That was “as high a priority as that event would justify,” Spado said.

Higher priorities are for those where a danger to life or grievous bodily harm is present, he said.

In fact, Finlay’s call could have been downgraded as “there was no threat to anybody anymore. The suspect had left [and] there’s no threat to property,” Spado said.

“That person was 100 per cent safe at that point in time.”

Spado was asked but did not know the average response time for a Priority 3 call. He was also asked how busy it was on Saturday at the time Finlay called, but said he couldn’t speak specifically to that.

“I just know that our queue is never down to zero. Members are going call to call to call,” he said. “I can say it was likely busy. The fact a Priority 3 sat there tells me there were other priority threes and twos that were present.”

Justice Minister Matt Wiebe announced on Wednesday that the province will fund overtime pay for four police units with the Winnipeg Police Service to target “hot spots,” such as retail stores and restaurants.

“That will be a great idea,” Finlay said. “Even just a cop car in the area frequently hopefully will deter these criminals.”

Spado said he didn’t have enough details about Wiebe’s announcement to respond.

“Do we have a retail theft problem? Absolutely we do. I don’t know what else I can say about that,” he said.