Downtown Winnipeg: Personality sketches

This is the first in a series of sporadic reports about criminally-involved people who habitually inhabit and wander downtown Winnipeg.

There’s a lot more to them and their lives than I’d bet most care to realize.

These are true stories. 

Downtown Winnipeg tales #1: H. M. Jr., 53

There’s something so incredibly sad and yet telling about Mr. M. and his circumstances — also about the hard and lonely realities of his adult life, a good chunk of which has been spent on the streets of our humble downtown.

M. grew up in what he describes as a “good,” religious and abuse-free home on Fisher River First Nation.

The aftermath of an arson M. caused (Tamara King/Winnipeg Sun)

He hasn’t been back there in 20 years.

His dad died 40 years ago of ALS.

He suspects his mom has died of old age but can’t be sure. He hasn’t seen her in two years.

He knows his three brothers and one sister live in Winnipeg, but says they have their own lives. He says he speaks to them “when [he] sees them downtown,” as he believes this is where they work.

He asks for nothing from them and they of him.

M. survived a number of years at a Brandon-area residential school as a young man.

It was an experience he describes as “difficult” — one where instructors beat him frequently when they got the chance, he says.

M.’s parents also attended the same school and they were also “punished” and had their “language forced out of them,” he told a social worker.

Despite these considerable hurdles, M. graduated high school and attended two years of Arts at the University of Manitoba.

He’s employable, with a decent track record of steady work, and has in the past been a willing and co-operative participant in counselling and job-placement programming provided by government agencies.

Up until the other day, he had virtually no criminal record except for a theft under $5,000 conviction from the early 90s.

Despite these positives (and a large amount of government intervention) stability and security remain elusive for M. — who has no kids or wife to rely on.

(He has, however, been engaged twice but the relationships ended mutually)

Here’s how M. described an average day in his life to a probation officer:

“The client was asked to describe his typical day. He responded by stating he usually does any of the following: ‘Go downtown, go try to find work, hang around downtown.'”

Soak that in. Drink up its sadness: There’s nothing else M. — nearing 60 years old with half a university degree and a good amount of job and life experience — can identify to do with himself other than hang around downtown Winnipeg.

It gets even more sad when you consider why he hasn’t been seen in the core over the winter.

Arson was suicide attempt

M. is currently a guest of the province for at least the next few weeks as he serves out a roughly year-long jail sentence for arson, disregard life.

He’s been in custody since last fall when he torched the curtains of his Alexander Avenue rooming house suite in what he told cops was a suicide attempt.

Four people, including M. himself, were injured in what ended up being a fairly dramatic blaze.

The elderly caretaker of the ramshackle home was one of two people who lept from an upper-floor window to safety.

M. told his probation officer he was “tired of living” and didn’t think anyone else living in the house was there at the time he set the fire. He changed his mind and fled the burning house.

It was his second suicide attempt in five years. The earlier was thwarted by a friend who found him and called for an ambulance.

M. wasn’t interested in talking to a probation officer about those friends, however.

He did say he has about five of them, who he sees about twice a week when he bumps into them while wandering downtown.

“The sole activity they undertake is to walk around downtown,” the PO notes.

Sometimes, however, they go and drink at somebody’s home.

It’s not explicitly stated what happened to M. in his 30s, but it appears the bottle got a good grip on him at that time and hasn’t really let go since.

He started drinking at 18, he says. More frequently in his 20s.

A few years later, booze became a major issue and he started finding himself repeatedly taken to the drunk tank under the provisions of the Intoxicated Persons Detention Act to dry out.

He has taken at least some steps to deal with his “significant” alcohol problem.

What’s worse is that M.’s mental health appears to be a growing concern as he ages.

In February, he was assessed as a “high” risk to reoffend.

How that might happen, that’s not explicitly stated.

“Drinking too much just happens,” M. says.

Sadly, that’s also when he gets suicidal.

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‘THE ROADMAP’ — notes on the WPS strategic plan, part 1

(Winnipeg Police Service)Preface: It must be said from the get-go. You can’t drop a 44-page report filled with charts stats, graphs and policy goals on (most, not all) people and expect them to be able to ask meaningful questions about it without having had a chance to read and absorb it. Full stop. 

An embargo period of an hour or two would have been a welcome gesture. 

Just saying.

Am I exposing myself as not-too-bright by saying so? So be it. 

To my knowledge, at the time the WPS held the press conference to announce and discuss their ‘Roadmap’ strategic plan yesterday, (link below) not one of the roughly 10-12 reporters (including camera ops) in the room had seen nor read its contents. 

ED’s Note: I started this post out in hopes of pulling apart pieces of the plan, but after articles here and here, I’m just gonna say my own IMO bit and get it over with.

(Those who criticized the reporters for not asking tough questions, see preface to this post.)

 

First off: Kudos to the chief for keeping his promise, despite the delays since the crime-reduction targets subject came up in April/May.

While many, and probably rightly so, can and will lament the modesty of the stated reduction goals, they’re bare minimums. The hope is they’ll come down even more.

Downtown needs work. The perception of downtown even more so. That’s abundantly clear.

There’s some interesting features in the sections of the report not related to public-safety goals that will have a huge impact on the force.

1] Major Case Management: Next year, the WPS aims to test out a new computer reporting and filing process that will likely bring the major crimes, OCU and homicide squad fully into the 21st Century from a technology POV. More on this to come. Better tracking of reports and files for complex cases. A good thing. This may dovetail with the ongoing effort to provide electronic disclosure for court purposes.

2] A Crime-free multi housing program. We’re going to hear much, much more about this in coming months. Currently, high-level meetings are taking place between police, justice and public health officials (and likely MLCC peeps) to talk issues relating to MUD’s — multi unit dwellings. My sense of it is that housing complexes (y’know, where people ‘socialize’) have been identified as a key area to target in hopes of reducing the violent crime rate.

3] Social media: The WPS tacitly acknowledges that Twitter and Facebook can be leveraged to great gain. However, the service plans to spend 2012 determining “our current and future opportunities” and not move towards integration of social media into their PIO strategy until 2013 at least. IMO: Way too late. Wayyy too late. Next year, policy guidelines for use of social media by officers and civilians in the WPS will be drawn up.

4] New internal discipline procedure (implemented in 2013): “Employ education-based discipline.” Hmm. I’ll reserve comment for now. Since the public knows so little about the current internal discipline regime, It’s hard to be fair in evaluating what ‘education-based’ discipline means.

5] Civilianizing positions currently held by officers. This could be huge, and save the city a bunch of bucks in the long run. My understanding is that there’s a hiring freeze on civilian police positions currently in place that — if the plan goes forward as, er, planned, will end as of 2013 as the goal of moving more uniformed officers off of desks takes shape.

Those are things that strike me as noteworthy on the surface. )

Now: For people getting on the case of police brass for the substance of the plan and how long it’s taken to get such a document out to the public, I’d remind them of a few things:

1] Since McCaskill took the chief’s job, there’s been a number of new and positive things happening on his watch: Number one, police cadets. Number two, community support units in the districts to tackle area-specific crime investigations. Number 3: Report cars to tackle non-emergency calls and free up cars for service. Four: the hiring of Crime Analysts to drill down into data and reports and make connections about crime trends that aren’t always immediately apparent. This list isn’t comprehensive, but just what pops to mind.

There’s been some setbacks too: Problems in the 911 call centre, a lack of focus on traffic enforcement and initiatives to make city streets safer, criticism for allegedly blowing off downtown safety issues, technology glitches. Lack of a defined strategic plan and process for the last 15 years.

And, perhaps most importantly: A high violent crime rate that the cops didn’t create in the first place but are tasked with cleaning up.

At the end of the day, no booklet of bureaucratic plans is going to fix everything the city ails from, crime-wise. I commend the department for releasing the document, regardless if it’s a little lacking on substantive details.

It’s unfair to expect the WPS to have all the answers.

However, it’s equally unfair for the department to ever seem puzzled that the public would ever question police priorities, plans, motives and operations. In this day and age, “trust us” just isn’t a valid response.

Hopefully the Roadmap will help allay fears and criticism that the WPS is too reactive and too secretive.

Got a question over the Twitter yesterday about a comment McCaskill made about a “crime czar” position in the city. He was responding to a Stacey Ashley question about innovation.

Here’s what he said, FTR:

“And this is something I believe Edmonton is doing a little bit of something about, and that term is mine, basically.

But — an administrator that can look at different types of thins that are happening in the community where police and other departments can feed that information and be more concentrated in a certain direction. Edmonton’s doing some of it, apparently.

There’s other documentation on how do you, how do you focus resources in a more effective way by utilizing not only city departments but other NGO’s and so on to be able to have a concentrated effort on fighting crime in other areas. That’s really … that’s something we’re looking at.”

When Stats Can released its latest Juristat numbers declaring Manitoba as the Crime Cap, Rick Linden made some interesting comments in an interview I did with him:

University of Manitoba criminologist Rick Linden said if Winnipeg is to truly make a dent in reducing crime, the city and province should consider setting up what he calls a “responsibility centre” to tackle the problem.

A key feature would be the appointment of a city crime czar with a crime-reduction mandate.

“We need to take a long-term perspective, put somebody in charge of that job and give them resources. We don’t do that now,” Linden said.

It’s pretty clear that if we’re going to dig ourselves out of the crime mess we’re seemingly always in, we need to innovate.

I, for one, would be very interested to see Linden’s idea take shape — and it looks as if the WPS may be too.

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Required reading

I don’t often — if ever — do this.

But this blog post from L.L. over at I’m on my way — destination hell, deserves a good, close read in the wake of @tombrodbeck’s great, great story about Air Canada and the perception of crime downtown.

Most interesting to me in LL’s blog is the condemnation of the liquor regime currently in place:

I drive past the drinking spots like the Garrick Hotel and the one that used to be Bleachers (it’s called something else now, I believe) and watch streams of people outside, smoking and fighting and screaming. I have no idea how these businesses are allowed to operate when all they do with their liquor license is create a dangerous, violent atmosphere for the people of downtown, but it happens. It’s because of places like these hotels, plus the St. Regis, and the earlier mentioned Manitoba Housing complex that I can’t actually walk around those streets to get anywhere. If I want to go to my bank in Winnipeg Square, I have to do it during the week, when I have a co-worker with me. I can’t go on my own time because I am not safe when those are the establishments I have to walk near to get to my destination.

Second most interesting is how the post relays an actual account of life lived downtown outside (and sometimes in) office hours by regular folk, their perceptions and observations.

You know when CTV national news leads with the story in a newscast, it’s a big deal. We should all be mindful of that as the spin doctors get to work trying to clean up the fallout.

I’d also like to point out, in reference, a story I did in early 2009 that echoes many of the credible points LL makes. I’d also reference a recent post here that graphically shows what DT is up against, crime-wise.

That was nearly three years ago.

Has anything changed? I’d say yes, but only to a limited degree.

Houston, we have a (social) problem on our hands.

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Pushing the dreaded ‘red dot’ around

(Winnipeg Police Service)

Maps depict incidents of: Assault, Asst. w/ weapon, sexual assault, fighting, gun seen, gun known, shots fired, gunshot wound, robberies and stabbing reports

(Assumption is the demarcation colours hold true today)

Violent Crime Hotspots March 29, 2008 to March 28, 2009 (1 year)

High intensity (over 1,400 dispatched events) zones along Main near Burrows and In the Central Park Area (that disperses in all directions)

Zones of Concern (no fewer than 1,100 dispatched events) at Higgins and Main and along Portage near Portage Place Mall.

Map 2: 

Violent Crime Hotspots March 29, 2009 to March 28, 2010 (1 year)

– High intensity  zones at Main and Henry, and along Portage near Portage Place Mall.

Zones of Concern in Central Park and along Main to about Euclid and Main at Henry.

What do the maps appear to say?

  • Police-reported violence in Central Park appears to be on the wane
  • The area around Portage Place has become more violent
  • Suggests there’s a contradiction in the current of opinion that states safety downtown is a matter of perception, not reality
  • Some of the violence plaguing north main past the Higgins underpass appears to have migrated south to the area near the Sally Ann and the new WRHA building
  • The CCTV camera at Main and Henry appears to be to one most likely to catch criminal activity
  • There’s a growing pocket of crime a block or so south of Salter near Manitoba and Magnus

These maps were embedded in a report on the effectiveness of the WPS’ crime camera pilot project. You can read about what it says here.

The precis version is that technological hiccups may have limited how effective the cameras can be, and there’s [apparently] no conviction results yet (from 2009? really?) to measure if the footage is holding up in court.

The tech. problems prompted State of the City to sagely ask: ” I also don’t get how (police) became responsible for tech risk & maintenance costs in the 1st place.”

Should Lucy Muthoka have faced charges?

Lucy Muthoka at the scene of the June 25, 2008 Crash. Winnipeg Free Press photo/Boris Minkevich

I say no.

Lucy Muthoka — the Winnipeg woman who killed two Manitoba men with her car in a massive downtown crash on June 25, 2008 — should never have been criminally charged.

That’s my personal view of the case, based on the outcome of it, decided yesterday at the law courts building.

Notwithstanding the grief the dead men’s families feel, and their views that they were treated unfairly by the legal system — the way this case proceeded and ended all points to a tragic accident having taken place.

Let’s look at the timeline.

June 25, 2008: the fatal crash at St. Mary and Donald. William Halcrow and James Ross are killed and David Matsubara is seriously injured.

Dec. 11, 2008: Muthoka is arrested and charged with two counts of criminal negligence causing death. The homicide-related charges reflect the seriousness of what happened, reporters are told. They were laid in consultation with the Crown’s office. Remember, it’s been more than six months that the crash happened.

There’s no allegations that drugs or alcohol have anything to do with what happened.

The case winds its way through the courts for more than a year. Muthoka is out on bail, given that she has no priors, is a valued federal government employee and is considered a leader in Winnipeg’s African community.

March 4, 2010: Muthoka enters guilty pleas to lesser charges of dangerous driving causing death, bringing the unlikely prospect of prison time down from a possible maximum of life behind bars to 14 years.  Even at this late stage in the case, there’s still evidently some issues about how the crash happened, and whether Muthoka was at fault

The Crown accepts her pleas in full answer to the men’s deaths, and basically telegraphs to the court that no jail time would be sought.

Under the Criminal Code, Muthoka faces a maximum 14-year prison term, however the court has ordered a pre-sentencing report be drawn up by an agency that specializes in community-based sentencing alternatives.

Neither the Crown nor Simmonds made any comment at the hearing about what sentence they are seeking in the case.

Friday Aug. 20, 2010: More than two years after the crash, Judge Brent Stewart, Muthoka, the lawyers and members of the victim’s families gather in in a courtroom to decide Muthoka’s [clearly pre-determined) fate. The Crown takes no position.

Muthoka, a religious woman, apologizes for what happened and has to hear the victim impact statements of the families of the men she killed.

In passing sentence, the judge declares that the courts are not courts of vengeance and suspends Muthoka’s sentence, bars her from driving for 10 years and hands her two years of probation.

Conditions include many “restorative” principles, including mediation with the victims’ families if it can be done, and community service of 240 hours.

That’s it.

Halcrow and Ross’ families leave upset, feeling justice wasn’t done.

But let’s be honest: There’s no way locking Muthoka up — for any period of time — would satiate their grief in any way in the first place.

If the end result of the case was this and was always thus, I ask what the point of charging her in the first place was.

The Crown signs off initially on two very serious homicide-related charges, reduces them on plea and ends up taking no public position as to sentence.

It’s pretty clear there was little interest in prosecuting this case.

And, it appears there was little public interest in doing so either, given the sheer number of people commenting on stories about the verdict that echo exactly what I’ve said here.

The charges should have been stayed a long time ago and the whole incident seen for what it was: a tragic accident committed by a novice driver who is sincerely remorseful.

If I’m not mistaken, MPI could have imposed the driver ban, which is probably the most harsh aspect of the whole judicial punishment.

But I have to ask: If there was evidence to lay criminal negligence causing death two years ago, what happened to it?

PS: I was at the provincial court counter when Muthoka was signing her probation order.

She was with a friend/support who kept glaring at me, I guess sensing I was curious about Muthoka, or somehow knew I was with the media.

She and Muthoka slipped out the Woodsworth Building entrance, thus avoiding any possibility of a confrontation with the victims’ families or the media.

A smart defence lawyer handling a high-profile case always tells their client to come and go by this route.

PPS: I call ‘boo’ on the scheduling mishaps that took place with Muthoka’s case on Friday, which make me wonder if there was a deliberate attempt to keep the sentencing out of the papers or other media.

After the last June 30 remand date, the sentencing was set for 2 p.m. Aug. 20 in courtroom 404 – the provincial court side of the Law Courts complex.

When I turned up at court on Friday, the docket reflected exactly that. 2 p.m., 404.

But, turns out about a week ago, it was quietly rescheduled for Friday morning in a courtroom on the second floor of the Queen’s Bench [old Law Courts] side of the building.

And then it was bumped down a floor to another courtroom just before the hearing started.

No note was placed on the door of courtroom 404 to advise of the change, and it’s really surprising the docket wasn’t altered to reflect the new time and courtroom, as that’s been pretty standard practice for some time now.

Thanks to Global Winnipeg’s Jeff Keele for being on the ball and filling me in on what happened.

No other reporter in town actually made it into the room for the hearing because of the “mixup.”

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Revitalizing Downtown Winnipeg: The Next Steps Forward (via The View from Seven)

Interesting info here. Worth reading for some outside the bubble perspective.

Revitalizing Downtown Winnipeg: The Next Steps Forward It's a question that has stumped Winnipeggers for more than a generation: how to reverse the decline of downtown Winnipeg and, in particular, Portage Avenue. At one time, downtown Winnipeg was the place to be. Portage Avenue was one of Canada's great downtown boulevards, lined with office buildings, restaurants, retail stores and movie theatres. It was the kind of place where a person could spend the better part of an entire day without getting b … Read More

via The View from Seven

The BIZ boundaries

Yesterday, I questioned the Downtown BIZ’s contention that only 5.7 per cent of the city’s crime happened within their boundaries. Those boundaries are [map provided courtesy of the DT BIZ]

Downtown BIZ boundaries

North is Higgins Avenue to just east of Main Street

West is just west of Hargrave but also Spence Street just past Ellice Avenue.

South is the Assiniboine River along Assiniboine Avenue.

East is the Red River and includes The Forks.

They also kindly provided this statistical chart:

Crime stats from the DT BIZ

And as much as I can see that the problem has to do with outlying areas outsize the zones contributing to a skewed total number of crime incidents that the BIZ folk must pare down to reflect their zone of operations, I’m still not buying it.

Here’s what the BIZ had to say, and it’s totally fair and understandable.

“Downtown is in District 1, however, District 1 comprises a much larger area than the actual downtown boundaries.

(There is definitely a lot of crime in that district, but it’s not happening in the BIZ zone boundaries. Because we are only responsible for those boundaries, that’s what we report as crime in downtown.)

Because of this, we actually take the time to add up all of the 11 neighbourhoods that make up downtown each month and report the resulting crime stats up that way. That’s where the numbers came from in the Trends report and the ones we continue to talk about.”

The above chart says that between July 10, 09 to July 10, 2010, there was one homicide within the BIZ zone. And technically, that’s true.

Get just outside the reporting period, however, and one learns that there were three there in 2009:

CBC.ca/manitoba interactive homicide map

So far this year, however, there have been none.

I should add that technically, homicides are a poor indicator of crime and safety in an area given that the crimes usually don’t involve the public at large but are rather crimes of passion committed in the heat of the moment.

But, as the BIZ spokesperson said, it’s the perception that downtown is crime-ridden that’s an issue.

“One of the messages we are always trying to get across to people is that crime in downtown is more about perception than actual safety. Many people feel their personal safety is threatened when they are panhandled, whether they are in any danger or not.”

Well if that’s the case, a recent CBC story indicates that people’s negative perceptions of crime in the area are hardening, not becoming more positive.

The perception of safety in Winnipeg’s downtown during the day is on the decline, a public opinion survey commissioned by the Winnipeg Police Service suggests.      -edit-

“It seems that confidence in daytime safety downtown has eroded across all neighbourhoods,” wrote the unidentified police official who summarized the poll findings in a report.

In a poll done in 2008, more than half the 400 Winnipeggers surveyed agreed with this statement: “During the daytime, downtown Winnipeg is safe.”

The number dropped to about 40 per cent in the most recent poll, conducted by Dataprobe Research of Winnipeg.

Most troubling is that even people living downtown feel less safe during the day, the findings suggest.

In 2008, 85 per cent of the people surveyed agreed the downtown was safe. In the latest poll, the percentage dropped to 42 per cent, although only 4.75 per cent of those surveyed identified themselves as downtown residents.

Readmore: http://www.cbc.ca/canada/manitoba/story/2010/02/22/man-police-downtown-safety-cctv.html#ixzz0tZUCmtAS

This was from February, 2010. I remember writing it based on the work done by Sean Kavanagh.

Now, I sympathize with the BIZ folk. Their job is not an easy one. As I clearly stated yesterday, I admire them in a lot of ways. But when you’re confronted by pictures like this:

Portage and Garry Assault July 13, 2010 ---Shaun McLeod photo

You begin to question the stats.

I’m not saying they’re wrong or fudged. They just feel that way to a guy who’s spent the last few years of his life looking at crime and justice in the city fairly closely.

But then again, I’m in the reality business. So I like to think.

City admits problem with downtown boozing

As referenced my post from earlier today – about the plans from CentreVenure for a “four district model” of a revitalized downtown – the agency (and therefore the city) finally makes a tacit admission that selling booze out of vendors at hotels on Garry Street at 9 a.m. has had an impact.

From CBC News:

” The city said a key part of the proposal will be addressing safety and “public comfort” by developing a public safety plan for the four districts and working with the provincial government to “resolve the impact” beverage rooms and a handful of low-rent hotels have on the area.

Many business owners on north Portage have complained about public intoxication, vagrancy and panhandling that accompanies the sale of liquor in the area.”

Good to hear at least the problem isn’t being totally ignored. It’s a miserable one. Office workers on Garry have told me about the hassles just getting into work in the morning.

You step outside for fresh air at your own risk…

Thanks to all who wrote in with comments on Facebook and here at the blog.

Licencing Mayhem

Google Maps

It was more than a year ago that I wrote about how business owners on the north east section of Portage Avenue felt as if the MLCC – Manitoba’s liquor commission – were ‘licencing mayhem’ by allowing beverage rooms and low-rent hotels (usually housed in the same building) to sell cheap king cans of beer to people starting at 9 in the morning and throughout the day.

They were tired, they said, of the rampant drunkenness, vagrancy, fights, threats and hooliganism and public urination.

The above map shows just a few of the places in the heart of downtown where booze is available cheap and early.

In Today’s FP,  we see that there’s a new plan to save downtown courtesy of CentreVenture, the city’s downtown development agency.

A key feature to this plan is:

an 11-block sports, hospitality and entertainment district, or SHED, would encompass the MTS Centre, the Winnipeg Convention Centre, the Metropolitan Theatre and the Burton Cummings Theatre. It would be designated a tax-increment financing zone, which is an area where property tax revenues from new development can be used to help fund even more development. —-Kives

And it sounds great to a guy who has no head for numbers.

But I’d just want to add that prior to doing this, the city should first consider making the area a ‘zero-tolerance’ zone for public intoxication, panhandling and vagrancy. That means, to start, no more cheap booze sold to anyone, at any time, period.

We could look at the Minneapolis example of how officials — with help from corporations — completely revamped the Nicollet Mall, once a haven for petty crime and drug dealing — and turned it back into a favoured destination for tourism and other folk in the city.

Until these crime-related issues are addressed first, no amount of boutique hotels or TIF zones will make people go downtown and stay downtown – especially after 5:30 or 6 p.m.

Currently, you cannot walk from Portage Place [a notorious drug-dealing hub for street gangs] to the Richardson Building without being hassled by someone wanting something, change, a smoke, whatever. Often, the hasslers come in packs.

These beverage rooms and hotels are simply feeder zones that fuel the downtown’s demise. And we allow them to stay open.

Unless this changes, nothing else will, I suspect.

UPDATE: Steve Lambert of the Canadian Press news agency sends this link via Facebook:

Here’s a slide that shows the income levels of downtown Winnipeg residents:http://img.slidefinder.net/imagegethandler.axd?id=5753703&size=2″

Thanks, Steve!