Homicide or Robbery? – A Public Safety Debate

Winnipeg Murder Scene (Photo JGJ)

I’ve been having an interesting debate with an intrepid Winnipeg crime reporter for a number of years now.

He says robbery, I say homicide.

The question;

“Which crime is a better measuring stick when it comes to assessing the general health of a City?”

It’s not really a debate, it’s more like a football we toss around every now and then.

The question arose once more during a discussion at the 2019 Canadian Association of Journalists National Convention held in Winnipeg last week.

I was an invited panelist along with Winnipeg crime reporting aficionados Kelly Dehn (WPS Manager of Public Affairs), Caroline Barghout (CBC) and yes, the intrepid one, James Turner (Journalism Instructor RRCC).

James Turner (WFP)

In a q & a session, the topic turned to homicide, for good reason of course.

The City of Winnipeg has long been recognized as the murder capital of Canada (per capita) with the City of Regina only occasionally wresting the dubious distinction from us.

“I would say far too much emphasis is placed on reporting homicide in this City,” Turner interjected during the discussion.

“I would like to see a lot more focus placed on strong-arm robberies,” he stressed.

Turner suggests strong-arm robberies offer us far superior insight into the public safety debate.

In 2018, the City of Winnipeg recorded 1,797 strong-arm robberies.

That’s a significant increase in these violent crimes from just four short years ago when the city recorded a not so trifling 1,081 such incidents.

The jump in numbers equates to a 66.23% increase.

When I reached out and invited him to explain the underpinnings of his argument he didn’t hesitate.

Turner frames his opinion like this;

  • Strong arm robberies have a devastating effect on victims, many who have to live with the trauma they suffer for their entire lives.
  • Statistics would show the likelihood of being killed at random is low.
  • Conversely, statistics would show the likelihood of being robbed and beaten are considerably higher.
  • Ultimately, the robbery rate, especially geographically, is a better gauge of “public safety” than the homicide rate.
Gang Tags – West End Winnipeg (Photo JGJ)

I see it differently.

It seems 2019 is an excellent year to finally settle the argument.

I frame my opinion like this;

  • Homicide is also a crime that comes with devastating effects. While I would never trivialize the devastating trauma suffered by a victim of a strong-arm robbery, a homicide involves the loss of life. The impact on immediate family, extended family, friends, employers, co-workers, neighbours, and communities is immeasurable. I don’t believe there is an equivalent comparison to be made here.
  • While statistics might show the likelihood of being killed at random are low, that’s of little consequence to two recent murder victims in Winnipeg who were killed in entirely random attacks. It’s also of little consequence to a significant number of Winnipeg men who were killed in random “G” check gang-related killings.* One such killing happened in 2013, in broad daylight, at 4 o’clock in the afternoon mere blocks from the University of Winnipeg.
  • A city with a high homicide rate could never be considered a “safe” place to live, that’s just common sense. If you live in a city with one of the highest per capita homicide rates in the country that’s telling us something and we should probably listen.
  • The types of homicides we record can be highly informative, for example – high youth involved homicide rates tell us we have a gang problem in our city. Gang culture, crime, and violence is like a cancer that dramatically impacts on the health of a city.

    “Show me a city on track to set an all-time homicide record and I’ll show you a city that has serious public safety issues.”

  • Homicide involving firearms is also indicative of organized crime, independent drug cell or criminal street gang participation. This year, the City of Winnipeg has already recorded 6 firearm related homicides. In 2018, the WPS Homicide Unit investigated a total of 7 firearm-related homicides and only 5 the previous year. The City of Winnipeg has recently experienced a significant rise in firearm-related crime and homicide – that tells us something about the health of our city and we should probably listen.
  • Like strong-arm robberies, the methamphetamine crisis has an undeniable impact on our homicide rate.  These crimes are often driven by organized crime, criminal street gangs and independent drug cells who are constantly in a state of conflict in their efforts to control the lucrative drug trade. Show me a city where illicit drugs are in high demand and I’ll show you a city that has serious public safety issues.
  • The City of Winnipeg is currently on track to surpass the all-time homicide record of 41 killings recorded in 2011. As of today, the WPS Homicide Unit has investigated a total of 14 killings. In 2011, we didn’t hit that mark until May 16th, a full ten days later than the current year. Show me a city on track to set an all-time homicide record and I’ll show you a city that has serious public safety issues.

I won’t rest my case just yet.

In a discussion regarding these two evils, we must consider another issue in our assessment → preventability.

Talk to any criminologist or seasoned homicide investigator and they’ll tell you homicide is a very difficult crime to prevent.

Conversely, a dedicated, tactical approach can dramatically reduce the robbery rate.

WPS Chief Danny Smyth (Photo JGJ)

The Winnipeg Police Service has undergone major organizational changes under the leadership of Chief Danny Smyth.

One of those changes was the centralization of all criminal investigation services which resulted in the elimination of the District Crime offices.

When the changes were made I immediately knew there would be consequences.

Stay with me…

(For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction ↔ Newton’s 3rd Law)

Task Prioritization / Task Management

A major part of what police do is triage crime.

Violent crime is always a top priority.

Violent crime comes in many flavours;

  • Homicide
  • Home Invasions
  • Gang Related Violence – Shootings, Assaults
  • Stabbings
  • Serious Assaults – life-threatening
  • Domestic Violence
  • Commercial Robberies
  • Strong Arm Robberies

Did you notice where strong-arm robberies appear on the list – that didn’t happen by accident.

Police have to triage violent crime as well, unfortunately, strong arm robberies just don’t come anywhere close to the top of that priority list.

(With the centralization of the criminal investigative units, some police officers suggested the WPS essentially declared Winnipeg an open city for criminal property offenders – but that’s another story ↔ Newton’s 3rd Law remember.)

Some suggest the spike in strong-arm robberies is largely due to the Winnipeg Police Service Executive taking their collective eyes off the ball and draw equivalents to the neglect perpetrated by the leadership of Manitoba Liquor & Lotteries who created the theft crisis recently exposed at Liquor Marts.

Back to prevention.

With the centralization of the criminal investigative units, some police officers suggested the WPS essentially declared Winnipeg an open city for criminal property offenders – but that’s another story ↔ Newton’s 3rd Law remember.”

In 2006, I was transferred to the District 6 Crime Unit to run operations as the Sergeant in charge of criminal investigations. Prior to my arrival, I heard the Unit described as “Sleepy Hollow” and was told it would be a great place for me to rejuvenate.

The problem was, I was good, no rejuvenation required.

Fortunately, the office was staffed with a group of highly motivated men and women who only lacked in one area – leadership.

In just two short years the Unit became one of the most revered crime-fighting machines in the Winnipeg Police Service. The success was largely due to the dedicated proactive approach we adopted to reduce crime.

In 2008, I was transferred to Division #40 – to run operations as one of the two Sergeants in charge of the Organized Crime Unit.

Not long after settling in, I was tasked with the responsibility of taking ownership of the outrageous escalating gun violence that plagued our city in the latter half of 2007.

I was given the authority to pick my team and run all operations autonomously.

I developed protocols and staffed the unit with some of the most dedicated, tenacious police officers employed by the Winnipeg Police Service.

The results were compelling.

Anthony Woodhouse – Passages WFP

The shooting protocols were key in helping us identify the source of the escalating violence.

The picture became clear, certain members of the Indian Posse street gang were catalysts for the high number of shootings we were experiencing.

At the center of the maelstrom was a young Indian Posse gang leader with a penchant for ordering gang shootings.

“Hey, there’s haters over there on Boyd Avenue.”

That’s it, that’s all it took, a phone call and the implicit order to go and shoot someone in a neighbourhood where gangster affiliation is literally a life and death proposition.

That phone call was all it took to end the life of Anthony Woodhouse, an innocent man with no gang affiliation at all.

As tragic as the Woodhouse killing was, it wasn’t the case that led to the guns being silenced.

On June 9, 2008, Indian Posse hit man Justin “Snipes” Meeches paid his longtime friend and fellow gang member Sidney Letandre a visit that ended up resembling a scene from the Godfather.

Justin “Snipes” Meeches – WPS Handout

It was a gang hit, Mafioso style, pure and simple.

Send a trusted friend to turn your lights out.

When Meeches knocked on the back door, Letandre welcomed him into his home with no hesitation.

That was a deadly mistake.

The first shot struck Sid in the center of his back.

The effect was devastating, a severed spinal cord and instant paralysis from the chest down.  The next shot was intended to finish the job, a headshot directly behind the left ear which caused bone fragments to become lodged in Sid’s brain.

All this in front of Letandre’s wife and three children.

(Gang hits – a dish served cold.)

After investigating the crime, it was clear the I.P. gang leader with the god complex was behind the shooting.

The problem for Meeches and the shot caller was Sid refused to die.

“Not today.”

The game changed when one of my Detectives managed to convince Letandre to switch teams and provide a sworn videotaped statement implicating the shooter.

When word got out, Meeches fled the province.

The shot caller went dark.

The results were immediate and measurable.

The guns fell silent.

He says robbery, I say homicide.

James Turner was not wrong.

I wasn’t either.

There really is no debate.

It was a trick question.

The answer is violent crime.

There can be no doubt violent crime is the best measuring stick we can use to assess public safety and the health of a city.

Using that criteria, it’s pretty clear we have a serious problem in River City.

Final Thought

If we want to do something about the outrageous number of strong-arm robberies occurring in our city then we have to have a plan.

We have to plan the work and work the plan.

It’s really that simple.

These crimes are not going to stop unless we take the initiative to stop them.

It all starts with ownership.

There can be no doubt that a focused strong-arm robbery anti-crime reduction strategy would dramatically reduce the numbers.

WPS Crime Units have always been able to rise to the challenge and have launched a number of highly successful crime reduction initiatives:

  • Homicide Unit – Gang Murder Reduction – Project Guillotine
  • Street Crime Unit – Street Gang Violence Reduction – Project Falling Star & others
  • Organized Crime Unit – Gun Violence Reduction – 2008 Shooting Protocols
  • Stolen Auto Unit – Auto Theft Reduction – Winnipeg Auto Theft Suppression Strategy (WATSS)
  • Arson Unit – Arson Reduction Initiatives
  • District 6 Crime Unit – Operation Intervention – Commercial B&E Reduction

(There have been many other highly successful projects and anti-crime initiatives over the years – the list is by no means exhaustive.)

Editor’s Note;

Not explored in this article are causation factors that contribute to violent crimes like strong arm robberies.

Issues like poverty, drug addiction, mental health, unemployment and other social issues, though relevant in the conversation, are not within the scope or responsibility of law enforcement.

Police officers should not be confused with social workers, because they’re not social workers.

As members of the front line, Police Agencies have a responsibility to alert social agencies to the dysfunction they see on our city streets. That responsibility requires police to alert and support helping agencies when required.

Police didn’t create the conditions that precipitate crime.

We should try to remember that.

*The “G” Check
MW Gang Colors – Photo JGJ

I’ve investigated several homicide cases that were the result of a “g” check.

A “g” check is gang speak for a confrontation where a gang member confronts someone he thinks may be a member of another gang.

In a typical “g” check, the gangster asks, “Who you down with?”

In many cases, there’s no right answer.

The gangster has probably made up their mind to stab or shoot you regardless of what you say.

If a gangster tries to “g” check you, my best advice would be to run, and don’t look back.

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