Sunday, 21 December 2008

Park Police vs Park Watch

It’s being reported by The Free Press that the city is considering halving the Winnipeg Parks Police Force from 14 members to 7.

Winnipeg’s Parks Board was created in 1893 but the first constables were not hired until August 1897. The members of the force, the third largest in Manitoba, have never been members of the regular police force but of the city department in charge of parks (today that is the Public Works department).

A great history of "Winnipeg’s Other Police Force” can be found at the Winnipeg Police Museum Website.

My first reaction to the headline was to say “this is a dumb move”. Though our major parks are not high crime areas, still, the required enforcement of bylaws, complaints and crimes will, presumably, fall to the regular police force which makes little sense. The proposal, though, that a "Park Watch", (similar to, say, the Downtown BIZ Patrol), be used instead I think has merits and is worth considering.

I have lived and worked downtown for about 15 years and have seen the evolution of the Downtown BIZ Patrol first-hand. They began by doing things that just didn’t get done: safewalks to cars, giving directions etc. and graduated to enhancing or replacing services that the city just does not have the resources, or desire, to deal with anymore: minor policing duties like dealing with disturbances or intoxicated people and to provide basic first / CPR.

There is definitely a comfort factor that the BIZ Patrollers create. I feel better knowing that there are 10 or 12 BIZ Patrollers always walking around with that skill set versus knowing that a couple of times a week a pair of beat police might wander down Portage.

I could not find specific stats as to what the Park Police spends most of it's time dealing with. In the 2007 Economic Opportunity Commission Report, (chaired by Scott Fielding), they maintain that the force deals mostly with complaints such as noise, open liquor and 'lost and found' issues. The Commission concluded that instead of having officers trained the same as the Winnipeg Police, (but do not carry weapons), that another force could deal with these matters for less than the $1.1 million dollar price tag.

I understand the union's issue with this. It will mean a loss of jobs. They probably also see it as a thin edge of the wedge with regards to park services as well. The Downtown BIZ, for example, now has the duties of park clean-up, sidewalk clearing and flower planting - things that CUPE members at one point did.

CUPE's news release (linked above) claims "This is strictly a public-safety issue". I am not sure if public safety would be challenged. They'd have to truck out a lot more stats for me to buy that.

The BIZ Patrol's real bonus is that, through paid staff and 100 or so volunteers, it puts a hell of a lot more eyes out there than the police ever could. That helps reduce problems before they start or, should something major happen, creates a larger network to relay information to authorities.

The union will likely get an initial jump of support. Anything to do with "less police" will instill an uneasiness in people. I think that will settle down, though, when people realize that if they have a problem or need assistance they just want it taken care of as quickly as possible. They want a perception of safety by having people around keeping an eye out for them. Whether they have the title Park Patrol or Park Police I don't think it will make a difference to them.

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