Survey paints bleak picture of morale within Winnipeg Police Service ranks

The results of a new survey paint an ugly picture of morale within the Winnipeg Police Service.

Both sworn officers and civilian members of the police service reported feeling unsupported by their leadership and hated by members of the public, with serious impacts on their mental health. 

The feedback in the external review singles out Chief Danny Smyth, saying he has not stood up for officers amid social movements calling for the defunding of police, particularly in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer last year.

“Anti-police public opinion, COVID, negative media and internal politics are identified issues that have led to a toxic organizational culture,” authors Lisa Kitt and Nathalie Gagnon wrote in the report, which was released Friday.

The survey received responses from 1,104 officers and 360 civilian employees, with response rates of 80 per cent and 65 per cent, respectively. It was conducted over two weeks in early April.

Chief Smyth agreed to the external review last March after the Winnipeg Police Association, the union representing front-line officers, said it was seeking an outside organization to conduct an assessment of the police force. 

A majority of officers (63 per cent) and civilian employees (53 per cent) who responded to the survey said they feel their work is having a significant impact on their mental health.

There is a high degree of burnout across the organization, according to the survey. Nearly a third of officers and civilian employees meet diagnostic criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, or depression. Twelve per cent of officers and 10 per cent of civilian employees meet all three.

Four per cent of officers and five per cent of civilian employees reported seriously considering suicide over the last 12 months.

“I feel more helpless than I ever have in my life. My voice does not matter,” one member is quoted as saying in the report.

The most common words used to describe the work environment were “toxic, frustrating, stressful, good, challenging and depressing,” the report said.

Problems with leadership

Winnipeg Police Association president Moe Sabourin said the findings of the report confirm what the union has been saying for years.

“The presentation that we received tells us that our people are hurting. Whether it be burnout, whether it be PTSD, our people need help. We need more resources and there has to be some changes that are made,” Sabourin said in an interview with CBC News.

Kitt and Gagnon note in their report that external events — including the COVID-19 pandemic and increased activism and scrutiny of police officers across North America — as well as the recent suicide of a Winnipeg police officer, provide context for the responses officers gave. 

Thousands of people gathered at the Manitoba legislative grounds on June 5, 2020, for the Justice 4 Black Lives rally, demanding sweeping changes to policing and the administration of justice. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

While those factors may explain part of the results of the survey, they don’t detract from the overall results themselves, they wrote.

The main problem, Sabourin said, is a “leadership void at the top.”

“A lot of people would try to blame COVID, or the defund the police movement, but these issues started about five years ago,” he said.

Chief Smyth told CBC News that he’s committed to working through the issues raised in the report, but said he had no plans to resign his position. 

“I think very highly of our members and the work that they do. I think I need to find new ways to demonstrate that,” he said in an interview.

Some of the issues raised in the report, such as promotions, are addressed in the collective agreement, he said.

He also said there may be opportunities to use the resources of the service’s public information office to communicate internally “so our members are aware that we do see the work that they do on a daily basis.”

City seeking advice

Other stressful factors members cited include an unfair and opaque promotion and transfer process, bullying and harassment from co-workers and immediate supervisors, and understaffing, particularly in the general patrol division.

Officers reported feeling uncomfortable taking sick leave for mental reasons, and general patrol members said staffing shortages make it difficult to take time off.

“That time off gives them the ability to recharge their batteries. Right now those batteries are low, and they’re not getting an opportunity to charge them,” Sabourin said.

The report highlighted some positive responses. Members reported feeling like the service does a good job of serving the community and keeping people safe.

The Winnipeg Police Board was briefed on the report earlier this week.

St. Norbert-Seine River Coun. Markus Chambers, who chairs the board, said the city will seek advice from external human resources specialists to find ways of addressing morale problems.

“We’ll be looking for that from our chief, in terms of the accountability measures that will be undertaken to address the low morale of the Winnipeg Police Service,” he told reporters Friday.