Winnipeg Police Board supports service’s handling of weeks-long protest near legislature

Winnipeg’s police board is backing the way the police service handled a weeks-long protest near the Manitoba Legislature Grounds last month.

“The board has confidence that the chief has knowledge, resources and specially trained members to manage this demonstration and future events going forward,” Coun. Markus Chambers (St. Norbert-Seine River), who chairs the board, said at a Friday meeting.

“The board will ask the service to review and evaluate all the information collected during this protest to ensure policies are reflective of the current evolution of protest and demonstrations.”

The board is meant to guide and hold the city’s police service accountable for how it polices, with regards to community values and needs. 

The board doesn’t, however, direct the police service on how to enforce the law or on day-to-day operations.

On Friday, police Chief Danny Smyth and Supt. Dave Dalal briefed the board on some aspects of how the service handled the anti-COVID mandate protests in February.

Dalal gave the board a high-level summary of negotiations between police and protesters.

Police were in contact with protesters before they even got to the legislative grounds to discuss where they would go, he said, and were in contact with the protesters almost every day following that.

Police also negotiated several times on when protesters could honk their horns and for how long.

Dalal said before the majority of protesters cleared out on Feb. 23 — after police told them they needed to be gone by the end of that day or face the possibility of arrest and criminal charges — officers negotiated with them to move away from the south side of Broadway, and to open up main routes during rush hour.

Winnipeg police Chief Danny Smyth speaks with reporters after the meeting. ‘We’re in the post-event stage of this,’ he said Friday. ‘Part of that is to engage with the community to rebuild that trust.’ (Sam Samson/CBC)

During Friday’s meeting, the board heard that police received 168 calls for complaints, with at least a dozen repeat callers. 

There were 239 different members who worked the protest, which amounted to 2,828 hours of police work. The chief said there were 156 hours of overtime, which cost the service about $106,000.

Smyth said he’s open to hearing more direction from the board, but that must involve an understanding about how police work may be affected.

“If the board and community expects us to mange this in a different way, I’m open to that. But let’s be clear when we talk about alternatives,” he said during the meeting.

“It’s not just asking someone to leave. In a protest situation, they’re fluid, dynamic and volatile. Before you go in to engage with someone you better know what the end game will be. That’s often force, use of force, conflict.”

Ask critical questions or resign: councillor

During the meeting, some community members reiterated frustrations with how police handled the protest.

Coun. Sherri Rollins (Fort Rouge-East Fort Garry) insisted the board reject Smyth’s short, written summary of the protest, which she said didn’t include enough information.

Rollins also told board members that if they didn’t ask critical questions of Smyth and the service, they should resign.

“I am absolutely saying that if they do not scrutinize a report that is too thin when Winnipeggers want answers, that is deeply dissatisfying,” she said in an interview.

She called that “enough of a signal to Winnipeg” that board members “are not serious about the oversight responsibilities that they have.”

Coun. Sherri Rollins (Fort Rouge-East Fort Garry) tells reporters she believes members of the Winnipeg Police Board should resign if they don’t ask critical questions of the service. (Sam Samson/CBC)

Other community members said they felt unsafe in the area while protesters were near the legislature grounds, and said there was a feeling police were lenient with protesters.

“It seems to me that the police are drawing false comparisons between legal and civil protest like Black Lives Matter and Every Child Matters and this destructive hate mongering, racist elements,” said Abdikheir Ahmed, co-chair of the Police Accountability Coalition, referencing past comments from Smyth that the service treats all protests the same.

“These people disrupted people’s lives, particularly low-income, racial minority folks doing front-line jobs.”

Kate Kehler, the executive director of the Social Planning Council, said the problem “wasn’t just horns.”

People didn’t feel safe because of hateful images and symbols on signs, and there were reports of harassment by protesters of people on the street, she said.

“People need to have that trust that when they call the police, that that current concern is going to be actually addressed,” she said.

What’s next?

Smyth said his future reports to the police board may be done privately, since some of the information may contain police tactics. All members who worked on the protest have been asked for their feedback.

“We’re in the post-event stage of this. Part of that is to engage with the community to rebuild that trust,” said Smyth.

“I expect we’ll try to facilitate some kind of forum with the community … to help people understand we don’t default to police use of force right off the bat.”

The police service’s 2022 business plan includes a section addressing how it handles large-scale events. In 2021 alone, the service monitored 185 events and was present at 81.

“Could we do something different? Perhaps. I’d certainly be open to that,” Smyth said, but said there are some things he wouldn’t be open to.

“You heard a lot about some of the negotiated progress we made,” he said. 

“We wouldn’t be able to share that with you while we’re doing it, because it would it would certainly limit anything that we could do to actually negotiate.”