Got 10 minutes? This could matter to you if you care about crime and the media and policing in Winnipeg.

While Menno criticizes the Winnipeg police for cancelling media briefings with reporters [and reporters for letting them do it unchecked] — and implies that there’s some political motivation behind it, I thought I’d weigh in on the experience with dealing with the Public Information Unit as a journalist.

First thing’s first: there’s limited staffing and limited resources in the unit. There are two active PIO/ police officers with Glocks and one information assistant who carries no weapon but her quick wit.

Each of these people are extremely pleasant to deal with and are typically speedy about responses to inquiries from reporters.

One of the officers is fairly new to the gig and deserves time to find her place in the scheme.

The most common mistake journalists make is assuming that the PIO knows about everything that the service is up to.

Point blank: they don’t.

My understanding is that the heads of the WPS’s individual units brief the PIO about [what they feel are] significant events and discussion happens about what the public is told, if anything.

The items chosen are vetted by the executive, and run past the legal department to identify potential issues with the release of information.

My sources tell me that the latter is particularly hard-nosed when it comes to what gets out in terms of official statements from the WPS.

Bearing this in mind, occasions do arise fairly often where a reporter finds out about an event that was never publicly disclosed by the PIO.

A request is sent for information, and depending on what it is, it appears an internal negotiation takes place about what to say by way of official response to the request.

This, in my experience, is where the breakdown between the media and the PIO hits a rut.

But I’ve come to learn that while it may be easy to say the PIO is being unreasonable or stingy with info, there’s reasons behind the madness.

Recent example: on July 15, a man is arrested for aggravated sexual assault in the downtown area near Central Park.  It’s a rare charge that denotes not only a horrible crime, but a horrible, life-altering incident of violence. In my mind, it’s second only to murders, simply because the victim is typically scarred for life by what happened.

Digging a little deeper, I find that the suspect in the case is what might generously be called a career criminal.

So, naturally curious, I send a request to the PIO for information, as the public was never notified that it happened.

I initially thought it related to a serious sexual assault they talked about in June, but as it turn out, was not.

Some information is nearly immediately sent my way, but it’s so scant:

“You have most of the details….. Winnipeg Police arrested 29 year old *** on July 13th for a sexual assault that occurred between June 23 – 24th to a 27 year old female in the 300 block of Quappelle.

*** was charged with aggravated sexual assault.

It’s so scant that it begs for a follow-up reply asking a few more questions, including why the public was never notified.

I get one later saying that the hope was to provide more info on Saturday … two days later.

Again, I asked why they didn’t release on such a serious crime, and wasn’t given a response.

On Sunday, I inquire again if anything more was coming.

“It’s still under investigation,” I’m told.

It seems weird to me. One of the most serious charges in the book laid against someone, and it’s still under investigation.

But at that point, when you hear those words ‘still under investigation,’ I’ve learned there’s no further response forthcoming.

Your best bet is to hit the street and start the digging process to find out what you want to know.

In this case, thank God for the court system is all I can say.

As there’s a publication ban on the case [the first thing the Crown asked for when it came before a judge], I can’t say much, but I can say this case could turn out to be a real bag of hurt for the cops, who are, my sources tell me, now suddenly very much interested in continuing the investigation.

But that’s beside the point, and I’ll fill in the blanks of that story when I can.

However,  what seemed like an unreasonable delay and response from the PIO in terms of my request turned out to be totally justifiable in terms of their having to act responsibly.

But if my estimation of how the public information system works is correct [and I believe it is], the unit commanders at the WPS have some explaining to do.

This week, I undertook a little project, which I will continue from here on in.

I call it the ‘what the public doesn’t hear about’ project.

And here it is. For the last five working days, M-F, I have documented the arrests made by the WPS that resulted in an adult, non-domestic violence-related suspect being locked up at the Remand Centre pending a bail hearing.

I have also documented what the PIO released on that day.

You’ll note some extreme differences in what’s going on ‘out there’, and what the public’s being told. Not to mention the amount of criminal activity officers are out on the streets cracking down on.

Here goes week one of the project. I’m open to your thoughts.

Monday media briefing held. Topics were: Fraud investigation, fire investigation and MVC involving stolen vehicle.

Of these items,  none requested the public’s assistance in obtaining information. There was the addition of one missing persons report which did ask for help locating the person, nothing unusual.

The fraud involved the discovery of money stolen from a hospital ATM over a period years [did nobody notice missing money from a bank machine for years? really?] The fire happened two days prior and simply said arson officers were investigating the cause. The MVC was more current, happening just about 12 hours prior to releasing info. It involved police property being damaged.

Now, on the adult criminal intake docket [people arrested and locked up] from the weekend – does not include domestic violence-related arrests, youths arrested or people arrested and released on a promise to appear:

  • Male, charged with a home invasion, robbery with a weapon and robbery
  • Male, charged with assault with a weapon, uttering threats
  • Male, charged with 75 gun-offences, including weapons trafficking between December 2009 and July 12
  • Male, charged with assault
  • Male and a co-accused male, each charged with 2x break, enter and theft
  • Male, charged with 8 gun offences and drug possession
  • Male, assault
  • Male, mischief
  • Male, robbery
  • Male, charged with 58 gun offences and drug possession for the purpose of trafficking x3
  • Male, uttering threats
  • Male, assault peace officer, assault with a weapon, careless use of a firearm, breach of a court-ordered weapons prohibition
  • Male, mischief, drug possession
  • Male, theft under $5,000
  • Male, theft under $5,000
  • Female, prostitution-related
  • Male, theft under $5,000

Note: These offences occurred between Friday morning and early Monday. I have omitted charges such as breaches to tally only new substantive offences.

I note that none of the weapons-related arrests appear to be related on paper.

So, over the weekend, that’s 18 unpublicized arrests – four of them involving guns or busts of alleged gun-runners. Admittedly, some on the surface appear minor, but if you’re getting locked up on a theft under $5,000, there’s likely more to it than meets the eye.

—-

Tuesday –

Media briefing held, but nothing specific noted on the agenda other than a discussion of a Stats-Can report on police-reported crime in 2009. Report notes violent crime on the rise by 15 per cent in Winnipeg over 2008 levels. Also note: No person from the executive [chief, dep. chief, inspector or superintendent] appears before the media to discuss what’s been happening.

Of two other items released Tuesday — by emailed news release — one requested the public’s assistance for information [a robbery], suggesting that this was the motivation for bringing it to the media’s attention. The other involved a public warning about a lost Taser cartridge, I think the third time this has happened in recent memory.

Now, on the adult criminal intake docket from Tuesday [people arrested and locked up] – does not include domestic violence-related arrests, youths arrested or people arrested and released on a promise to appear:

  • Male, assault cause bodily harm, theft under $5,000
  • Male, assault cause bodily harm, 2x assault with a weapon
  • Female, public mischief
  • Female, assault peace officer
  • Female, assault with a weapon
  • Male, trespassing
  • Male, robbery with a weapon
  • Female, assault cause bodily harm, aggravated assault, uttering threats, possession of property obtained by crime, fail comply with youth sentence. [incidents occurred July 11, she wasn’t arrested until Monday.]
  • Female, fail conditional sentence order

Note: I have omitted charges such as breaches to tally only new substantive offences.

—-

Wednesday –

Media briefing held, with two items on the agenda. An update to a past homicide file [New arrests in the Ricky Lathlin case from Gilbert Park] and the announcement of a new sex-trade enforcement program targeting child sex-trade workers.

Of these items,  none requested the public’s assistance.

On the adult criminal intake docket from Wednesday [people arrested and locked up] – does not include domestic violence-related arrests, youths arrested or people arrested and released on a promise to appear:

  • Male, possession for purpose of trafficking, possession of property obtained by crime [he was pending on a possession charge already]
  • Male, housebreak enter to commit robbery or assault
  • Male, possession
  • Male, possess prop OBC under $5,000, possession purpose trafficking x4 and possession of weapon for dangerous purpose
  • Male, robbery, fail to attend court
  • Male, conspiracy to commit an indictable offence [co-conspirators not IDd] Offence date was Apr. 10, he was arrested Tuesday.
  • Female, robbery with violence and intent to steal
  • Female, aggravated assault, possess weapon for a dangerous purpose
  • Male, sexual assault [incident was Feb. 4]
  • Female, theft under $5,000
  • Male, uttering threats [but was locked up, indicating there’s more to this than meets the eye on paper]

Note: I have omitted charges such as breaches to tally only new substantive offences.

Later in the day, there was a police-involved shooting on Alexander – PIO called in on OT to address the media at 9:30 p.m.

—-

Thursday –

Briefing Held – on the agenda: Internet luring arrest, update to the police shooting, a sexual assault and an assault with a weapon. The office was closing at 12:30 p.m, media were warned. No reason was given for the altered schedule.

That being said, the PIO was clearly returning calls to media about requests that had been made. I received one at 3:00 p.m. in response to a query made after 12:30 p.m.

On the adult criminal intake docket from Thursday – does not include domestic violence-related arrests, youths arrested or people arrested and released on a promise to appear:

[It appeared to be a slow day on Wednesday!]

  • Female, prostitution-related
  • Female, theft under $5,000
  • Male, break, enter and theft, fail to comply with youth sentence
  • Female, aggravated assault
  • Also, Gary Palmer, the independent GWL broker who bilked clients out of their cash was arrested for allegedly breaching his bail.

Note: I have omitted charges such as breaches [Palmer excepted] to tally only new substantive offences.

—-

Friday –

Media briefing held. On the agenda: an update to the officer-involved shooting – suspect ID’d and picture released. Others: The bizarre arrest of an off-duty RCMP officer who found his way into a stranger’s home while drunken, and a notification about an arrest in connection to the sale of mouthwash or whatever non-potable gunk to drunks in the downtown.

On the adult criminal intake docket from Friday – does not include domestic violence-related arrests, youths arrested or people arrested and released on a promise to appear:

  • Male, Robbery, non-compliance with a conditional sentence
  • Female, prostitution-related, theft under $5,000
  • Male, theft under $5,000 x3
  • Male, theft under $5,000
  • Female, theft under $5,000 [pending on two other theft under charges — likely chronic shoplifter]
  • Male, possession for the purpose of trafficking x2, gun offences x4 and possession of property obtained by crime
  • Male, theft under
  • Male, robbery with a weapon x2, break and enter with intent to commit robbery or violence
  • Male, robbery with a weapon x2, break and enter with intent to commit robbery or violence [co-accused to above]
  • Male, robbery with a weapon, drug possession
  • Male, robbery with a weapon
  • Male, break, enter and theft, fail to comply with youth sentence
  • Male, mischief to religious property and failing curfew [see Sun’s story from today. Guy’s name is Jessie Garret Thompsett].

———–

So, there you have week one of this ongoing project. Again, I ask for your suggestions on how this could be improved, bearing in mind I’m not flush with time to sift through all the paper.

I leave it to you to come to your own conclusions about what this means. Remember, this denotes but a fraction of the results police have demonstrated this week in terms of arrests made, crimes possibly solved.

Assuming, that is, that they have the right suspect.

What I take away from it is that while a number of serious incidents went unreported, I don’t believe the PIO is, at root, the reason for this.

I note that each day of this week, reporters got face time with the police, contrary to Menno’s assertion that cancellations of daily briefings are deliberate.

I also note that anyone wanting a taste of how the police and the media interacted prior to the adoption of the PIO system, head down to your library and look at some of the absolutely great police-related stories from the early 90s by Cory Castagna of the Sun, or Mike McIntyre from the Sun and later, the FP.

It used to be very different.

10 thoughts on “What the public doesn’t hear — a project

  1. Excellent post, excellent project. I’m with you on this — my contact with the PIO is now regular but relatively minor compared to some other beat reporters, but I will say honestly that I have always had positive dealings with them and found them to be friendly, professional, and very prompt. I remember watching a couple of incidents where one of the PIO officers had to, basically, take the broadcast media to task for a reporting mistake they made, and I was very impressed by the conciliatory and constructive way the subject was approached. (Other public offices in this city could take note.)

    It’s been fairly obvious to me that when information appears to be stonewalled — as I have experienced on a number of occasions — that this is coming from above the PIO officers, as you note. What I find lacking in the WPS for media, compared to other police departments I have worked with, is a certain level of access. Compared to the sheer amount of access, information and co-operation I’ve received working on occasion with some PDs in the U.S., it’s night and day.

    And I think overall it’s unfortunate, because I think it could benefit the WPS and the media equally if there was more dynamic interaction and more wide-ranging access there. That would be good for us, but it would ultimately be much better for citizens of Winnipeg.

    1. My limited experiences with U.S. departments – specifically the Minneapolis PD mirrors your experience, M.

      I went down there as a complete stranger and within five minutes of walking into a police station in the roughest part of the city, I was given a tour in the front seat of a police car, and a half-hour-long demo of their CCTV camera system.

      I can only imagine under what conditions a similar experience might happen here.

      But what you describe is, in some sense, why I included the thought at the bottom of the post – how things used to be very different.

      At some point, the WPS decided the downside of access outweighed the coverage they were getting.

      Now, they just play favorites with CTV Winnipeg, which in some sense could be seen as an arm’s length PR agency for the police force.

      Have you seen the embedded CTV stories on the WPS website?

      The fact they’re there is very informative.

  2. I will add, one thing I think is off-based about Menno’s post is the idea that media may be less interested in the police beat. I’m not sure that’s true, but ultimately, when you’re bashing your head against a brick wall and simply not getting the contacts you need to run anything near a fair and balanced story.

    Example: many months ago, I was asked to look into what might have been a very interesting story regarding one police issue. It required a certain type of access from police, though, and after two weeks of making regular requests and following up on it, I realized it wasn’t going to happen. But I couldn’t do it without them, so it never happened, which I would have to conclude was exactly the plan from whoever made the final decision.

    Another thing that’s struck me as odd is that this seems to happen even when the story is invariably, 100 per cent and totally positive. I remember some months ago when two police officers were bona fide heroes after some event. What was baffling was that it was almost impossible to get any access to the officers (who were uniform, not undercover) and when we did, we were collectively allowed a five- to ten-minute press conference in the PSB with them just before MIDNIGHT, and that was it.

    It was strange because I don’t have to channel surf THAT much to know that in many, many other cities, optics alone would have had the officers at the scene of the heroism, having a tearful reunion with the grateful rescued person, etcetera. It’s a good story for us, it’s good press for them. Why was it so buried?

    Again, I don’t consider that a PIO issue, or if it is, I’ll be very surprised.

  3. I apologize for all the typos and unfinished sentences. Had to take the hubby to the ER last night, working on two hours’ sleep 😛 God help the paper tomorrow

    1. Hope he’s OK – sorry to hear it.

      Even when you’re asleep you’re still a 1,000 times better writer than I’ll ever be.

      1. That’s not true and you know it. You’re much more succinct. I just don’t know where to put periods.

  4. The PIO serves at the discretion of the WPS bosses. If they don’t want something, it won’t happen through them.

    The media, unless you’re a CTV Winnipeg reporter, is not to be trusted.

    And even if you are part of the blue and red crew, that trust seems to hang on the product being either positive, or at the very minimum, not obtrusively negative.

    But then, I work at the CBC – which is known in police speak as the “Cop Bashing Corporation.”

  5. Hello James;
    I just found this and must congratulate you on what you’re doing. It takes a lot of effort not to mention time.
    One thing I can add, for what it’s worth, is that sometimes, not often, but sometimes, you’ll find out about an incident, either through a police and/or witness tip or off the scanner, and ask police about it.
    I found that in some cases they won’t want any information released because it’s still under investigation, which means off the top of my head a couple of things: They have a suspect in mind and don’t want to tip him and his pals off and second, they don’t want to contaminate the witness pool with too much info being released.
    Again, for the most part, my dealings with the PIO have always been positive.
    As to Menno, police cancelled tons of daily briefings when he was deputy.
    Cheers, Bruce

    1. Bruce, hi, and thanks.

      I’ve tried to be upfront about this project: it’s not a criticism of the PIO, which in my mind is understaffed and overworked. Ultimately, It’s a just a way of pointing out that what gets put before the public seems arbitrary, by and large.

      Your points are very well-taken and I hope you had a good summer.

      J

  6. A project like this requires some context as a starting point.

    That context should include at its core that media organizations have allowed police agencies to circumvent the fundamental democratic imperative that the state must produce a list of all individuals it detains, for whatever reason.

    Institutions that are granted extraordinary powers over the citizenry via civic, provincial or federal legislation were not suddenly granted immunity from transparency or public accountability in this regard. However, they, in fact, saw that the media were not, and are not, prepared to challenge their ad-hoc application of this responsibility.

    So-called privacy legislation, curiously, never seems to apply when such institutions deem the publicity favorable to their public image or to their tactical objectives.

    From publishers with absolutely no inclination towards public responsibility, to editors interested only in the quick hit, to crime beat reporters more interested in the cult of their own personality, these governmental institutions saw that the process would be as simple as currying favour with the more sympathetic or malleable media types by providing information and details and shutting out the more troublesome types.

    The media has, for the most part, long abandoned any notion it’s primary responsibility is to act as a sentinel against any infringement of the public trust particularly by police agencies.

    There was scant editorial attention given when the public law library at the law courts was shuttered up. or when federal funding to public interest legal challenges was cut. Like the discontinuance of daily police briefings–particularly in the last decade–of arrests and incidents, these were fine edges in an overall wedge intended to close up public access to information, redress or accountability.

    These subjects were raised a decade or more ago by several reporters at story meetings in newsrooms from the Freep,, to the CBC to The Sun, to name but three. They were summarily and routinely dismissed as alarmist.

    The three most prominent columnists and several talk-show hosts, all of whom still occupy their pulpits, also failed to mount a challenge to the now firmly entrenched notion that access to public information is a privilege and not a right, to be conferred to those who “play ball.”

    The fact is that public information and public responsibility have been so thoroughly lawyer-ed up as to be nothing more than quaint anachronisms now.

    The media, for the most part, has been complicit in their demise and now seem dumfounded to find themselves in this predicament?

    A worthy examination James…but unless your colleagues suddenly reacquaint themselves with certain fundamental notions of journalism’s primary public responsibility…I suspect it will be a solitary one.

    Best regards. Robert Harman

    .

    .

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