Violent and property crime across Winnipeg rose as pandemic restrictions eased in the early part of the year compared with previous years, and experts say the increase will continue as the city returns to life without pandemic lockdowns.
March, the most recent month the Winnipeg Police Service has data for, saw a nearly 40-per-cent increase in property and violent crimes in the city compared with the five-year average.
Michael Weinrath, a University of Winnipeg criminology professor, says several factors might be contributing contribute to rising crime rate, the first being greater opportunities for criminals as pandemic restrictions eased earlier this year.
“We have more people who are out and about, so that means more potential interactions that could become negative,” Weinrath said. “We have more people who become targets now because they’re not staying at home.”
Nearly 20 per cent more violent crime cases were reported this March than last, and the figure was 37.9 per cent higher than the average over the past five years.
Similarly, property crime saw a 39.2-per-cent increase over the five-year average for March.
Criminologist Kelly Gorkoff says crime was rising pre-pandemic, but there was a lull during the past two years.
“I don’t think they’re rising any more than they were before,” she said. “I think they’re meeting the pre-pandemic levels.”
Gorkoff, a criminal justice professor at the University of Winnipeg, pointed to the jump in assaults, robberies and uttering threats as all crimes that are likely the result of the easing of restrictions.
“You need to have contact with each other for those crimes to increase,” she said.
Police watching for trends
Police say they need more time to know how much the pandemic affected crime and what, if any, trends may emerge.
“We don’t know what the new normal is,” Winnipeg police spokesperson Const. Jay Murray told the CBC.
Murray said there was a “big increase” in crime in 2018 and 2019, when opioids and methamphetamines “took root in the city,” but the pandemic interrupted some of people’s activities.
“I think over the course of the year we should have a better idea if some of these trends are temporary or if they’re here to stay,” said Murray.
University of Manitoba criminologist Frank Cormier said “the police are correct” to take a cautious approach in interpreting the data.
Crime spikes in the summer months. That’s an old criminological truism [that] started with the cartographic school back in France over 100 years ago.– Michael Weinrath, University of Winnipeg criminology professor
“Crime really changed as a result of the pandemic and that’s not surprising,” he said.
Based on past trends, both Weinrath and Murray expect crime rates to continue to rise over the summer.
“It’s something that unfortunately we’ve seen over the past few years, and we believe it will continue this summer,” Murray said.
Murray said higher violent and property crime are typical in the summer in Winnipeg as “there’s a stronger street presence” and “people are more active in general” in the warmer months.
Weinrath says a short sharp spike in violent and property crimes for the summer is standard.
“Crime spikes in the summer months. That’s an old criminological truism [that] started with the cartographic school back in France over 100 years ago,” Weinrath said.
Daniel Hidalgo often interacts with those committing crimes while walking the streets with Community 204, the community safety initiative he founded.
“A lot of the people that find themselves in these scenarios of breaking the law and committing crimes are, unfortunately, victims of addictions and they’re trying to find ways of alleviating their disease of addiction,” said Hidalgo, who is also co-founder of SABE Peace Walkers, a de-escalation team.
He said the roots of the problem need to be addressed, “not just the symptoms.” He said leaders should respond with compassion by “providing supports,” and not just “temporary consequences.”
A need to address ‘chronic issues’
Multiple experts say it would be a mistake for the public and politicians to respond to the trends by increasing policing.
It’s important to remember that there are “chronic issues in Winnipeg that contribute to our high rate of violent crime,” Weinrath said.
“We have a high rate of poverty in the city. We have disadvantaged populations. We have some serious substance abuse and mental health and street gangs as well.”
It’s a sentiment shared by Winnipeg police.
On June 17 police announced a catalytic converter theft bust, noting the “crime of opportunity” has quadrupled in the past year.
Asked whether the pandemic was causing the rise, Winnipeg police Const. Dani McKinnon said that this type of property crime likely stems from underlying issues.
“Addictions have been on the rise. Property crimes is an opportunity to help feed the addiction. In terms of getting money for what you’re trading in so this was a means of money likely involved in methamphetamine and other [drugs],” she said.
Gorkoff says drug addiction was a well-known driver of crime long before the pandemic, an issue the government continues to ignore.
“I think we continue to spend more money on policing, and we don’t need to do that if crimes are continuing to increase. That really means policing is not a solution to crime,” she said.