It was the first true test of leadership for newly anointed Winnipeg Police Chief Danny Smyth.
On November 29, 2016, the Winnipeg Police Service Public Information Office held a press conference announcing the arrest of an 18-year-old offender believed to be responsible for the 2014 killing of Angela Marie Poorman (29), an Indigenous woman.
Poorman was stabbed to death on December 14, 2014 in the area of Selkirk Ave and Charles Street.
During the press conference a police spokesperson indicated the motive for the killing was related to the sex trade;
“Their encounter on this one particular morning was essentially an agreement for sexual services for cash. This agreement led to an argument specific to money and ultimately the accused in this matter allegedly produced a large knife and proceeded to strike or stab Ms. Poorman multiple times.”
Enter Leslie Spillett – Indigenous Activist and Advocate
Spillett, a former member of the Winnipeg Police Board, appeared before the Board to raise her objections regarding the information released by the Police;
“It framed Angela Poorman as a sex-trade worker, which had nothing to do with her murder,” Spillet said.
She didn’t stop there;
“Indigenous women are always characterized in such a negative way, which adds to their victimization. Stop blaming Indigenous women for being murdered,” she stressed.
Spillett suggested the police language may further strain relations between police and members of the Indigenous community.
In response, Chief Smyth acknowledged Spillett had a legitimate concern.
“I thought we were perhaps insensitive with the way we released some of the information. We are trying to take steps to be really careful with our language when we describe these kinds of things. I offer an apology to the Poorman family and to the Indigenous community.”
The situation requires analysis and critical thinking.
It’s widely acknowledged police have a duty to educate, inform and be proactive in their approach to public safety.
The Manitoba Project Devote team, an integrated RCMP and WPS initiative tasked with investigating unsolved murders of Indigenous and Non-Indigenous women, previously released a detailed list of risk factors that correlate to victimization. Those factors included:
- High Risk Lifestyle
- Substance Abuse / Addiction
- Involvement in Sex Trade
- Transient Lifestyle
- Mental Health Issues
They released this information to raise public awareness, to educate and to inform.
At the time of the release, the RCMP were very much concerned with being accused of victim blaming.
Spillett’s comments validate those concerns.
The question is, are her concerns valid as the new Police Chief suggests?
Spillet insists the information released by the police spokesperson, “Framed Angela Poorman as a sex trade worker, which had nothing to do with her murder.”
Her assertion clearly contradicts the information released by police.
So, is the contentious information not accurate?
When I heard the press release it was apparent the suspect charged with Poorman’s murder provided a confession during his interrogation. The information was specific;
- an agreement for sexual services for cash was made
- an argument regarding payment ensued
- the alleged offender brandished a large knife
- the alleged offender stabbed Poorman multiple times
The police don’t make this sort of stuff up, the kind of detail provided in the news release could only be provided by someone who witnessed or participated in the killing.
If the information came from the accused killer, and it appeared to be a truthful account, it’s difficult to argue Poorman’s involvement in the sex trade had nothing to do with her murder.
The account provided by police relates to motive – an extremely important part of any homicide investigation and an essential piece of the puzzle to be proven if a prosecutor hopes to secure a conviction.
When a woman is brutally murdered in our community, police have an obligation to provide the public with information that may impact safety.
- Is a serial killer on the loose?
- Are women in the community at risk?
- Do women need to take exceptional measures to enhance their safety?
If involvement in the sex trade is identified as a factor it becomes a relevant piece of information the public has a right to know.
Sex trade workers also have a right to know as it may impact their safety.
No need to apologize so far.
It does if we attach a negative stereotype or stigma to women who work in the sex trade, something the police have recently gone to great lengths to avoid.
In contrast, Ms. Spillett’s quest to suppress the truth, blame the police and threaten division seems to add to the stigma and encourages people to avoid having a much needed conversation.
Let us pretend Indigenous women aren’t involved in the sex trade and let us pretend involvement in the sex trade isn’t a risk factor or life style choice that results in increased victimization.
Let us pretend.
Is releasing factual information regarding high risk lifestyle choices equivalent to victim blaming?
No, it’s not.
It’s called the truth.
Ironicallly, the mission statement posted on the website for the MMIW Inquiry identifies three goals;
- Finding the truth
- Honouring the truth
- Giving life to the truth as a path to healing
No need to apologize.
Someone at the Police Board meeting might have wanted to inform Ms. Spillett that with the resolution of the Poorman case the WPS Homicide Unit achieved a 100% solvency rate for 2014, a feat that had not been accomplished for almost 12 years.
The WPS Homicide Unit previously achieved 100% solvency rates in 1999, 2000, 2004.
(A significant number of Indigenous men and women were victims of homicide during the noted years, yet police are still accused of being indifferent to the murders of Indigenous people.)
The resolution of the Angela Poorman murder case should have been a good news story, but it wasn’t.
Police Set Up to be the Fall Guys
The next few years are sure to be difficult for Law Enforcement Officers across the Country.
The National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations Perry Bellegrade made that clear this summer at a conference in Winnipeg when he suggested “fingers will be pointed” at police during the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women’s Inquiry.
That message has been consistently driven home by The Honourable Carolyn Bennett, Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs.
In a recent CBC interview Bennett was asked a question regarding the launch of the Inquiry, specifically – the lack of communication and frustration being expressed by First Nations people who already feel excluded by the process. In her response, Bennett remarkably found a way to put police in the crosshairs;
“This is uh, this is uh, I think going to be a very important commission, but I think we, like the National Chief did today, we also have to remind the families that the family liaison units will be stood up, but mainly we’ve got to get to work on the shelters and the housing and education, racism and sexism in policing and to me the most important thing, the overhaul of the child welfare system.”
Her comments left me astounded.
Bennett’s Top Priorities
- Overhaul Child Welfare System
- Shelter & Housing
- Racism & Sexism in Policing
Hang on a second.
Of all the social issues and factors that contribute to the murder and victimization of Indigenous women, racism and sexism in policing hits #4 on the priority list.
Let’s think about that for a minute.
Consider the things the Minister didn’t say.
Bennett didn’t say anything about;
- Domestic Violence – the number one factor identified in the killing of Indigenous women and girls
- Sexual Violence & Abuse
- Criminal Justice – trials, perpetrators, sentencing
- Racialized Poverty
- Street Gang Participation
- Youth Crime
- Over Representation in Federal and Provincial Jails
- High Risk Lifestyles – involvement in Crime, Sex Trade, Hitchhiking, Transient Lifestyle
- Lack of Mental Health Services
- Suicide Rates
- Drug Addiction
- Alcohol Addiction
- Substance Abuse – solvents, non-potable
- Impacts of Residential Schools
- The Destruction of the Family Unit
- Teen Pregnancy
(The list is by no means exhaustive.)
When you compare the priority lists, it’s important to remember police are supposed to be the agency of last resort.
Police respond to the fallout created by the failings of the social safety net.
Police didn’t create residential schools, poverty or any of the conditions that contribute to over-representation or victimization of Indigenous women, girls or men.
The government did.
I hope someone remembers that when the finger-pointing starts.
The Social Media Response – What They Said;