Taking back the neighbourhood

From the front lines of Winnipeg’s all-out assault on crime

KEN MACQUEEN March 24 2008

Taking back the neighbourhood

From the front lines of Winnipeg’s all-out assault on crime

KEN MACQUEEN March 24 2008

Taking back the neighbourhood


From the front lines of Winnipeg’s all-out assault on crime


The kid is 14. “It’s minus 29 in downtown Winnipeg,” says the radio blaring in the Dodge van he was just yanked out of. There’s a Winnipeg Police Service vehicle in front, three more behind. He’s flat on his stomach on a snow-covered walk on Market Avenue, getting cuffed, and not for the first time. There’s another minor with him and two adults. You have a hankering for illegal substances in Winnipeg, you phone one of the many dope phone lines—maybe 60 in the city—and you place your order. It’s a model of efficiency. “Buying crack cocaine around here is like ordering pizza, except they arrive faster,” says Sgt. Norbert Bauer of the Street Crime Unita flying squad deployed to problem neighbourhoods and high-priority crimes.

The play went down four minutes earlier, when a bearded guy, hunched in the cold of a Thursday night outside Boogies, a Main Street sports bar, ambled over to the van. It stopped rolling through the parking lot, just long enough to make the transaction. The bearded guy was Bob, an undercover cop, who handed over $60 through the passenger window for three rocks of crack. Sgt. Jim Hay ran surveillance from a distance and watched Bob’s back. “Deal’s been made,” he said quietly

into his radio. “Big white cargo van. It’s going to be heading northbound. Lots of windows on the side, copy?” A parade of waiting police vehicles assembled, using radios to choreograph the takedown. The kid was in the passenger’s seat when he handed off the crack, lucky; had he been driving, at age 14, gosh, that would be illegal.

The Prairie cities of Regina, Saskatoon and Winnipeg have the three highest crime rates in Canada, based on a Maclean’s analysis of 2006 crime data. Each share challenges: innercity poverty and deprivation, serious addic-

tion and gang issues. The three have the highest percentage of urban Aboriginals among major Canadian cities—a population grossly overrepresented in the courts and prisons.

A Maclean’s exposé last year of Regina’s crime problems angered the city’s mayor. But provincial spending followed for such key areas as education, community services and housing. This January, city police created a central policing district to focus on the downtown and inner city neighbourhoods. Saskatoon also restructured its police divisions. It saw a drop in property crimes in 2007, but a slight rise in such violent crime as assault and armed robbery. Winnipeg, the largest city of the three, has drafted community associations into a fullon assault on inner-city crime. What follows is a report from the front.


Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz grew up in Winnipeg’s gritty North End. Katz believes in consequences; the image of his father at the top of the stairs freeing up his belt to correct little Sammy’s errant ways is a vivid memory. “I can assure you I never committed the same offence more than once,” he says. Katz is a bottom-line guy. He is president and CEO of the Winnipeg Goldeyes Baseball Club. Like any ball nut, he loves statistics.

He studies Maclean’s list of high-crime cities, neither surprised nor defensive that Winnipeg ranks in the top three. “In the past I think no one wanted to acknowledge we have a problem with crime so they would do the old ostrich thing and bury their heads in the sand. I said a few years ago, we have a problem with crime, we’re going to address it.”

Among the initiatives is CrimeStat, a weekly compendium of key crime statistics for each of the city’s six policing districts, and available to all through the Winnipeg Police Service Web page. There were, for instance, 595 snatched autos and 589 attempted thefts citywide between Jan. 1 and mid-February—an overall 60 per cent drop from the year before. “We were the auto theft capital of Canada,” he says, as the Maclean’s survey bears out. “It’s not something you want to brag about. We’re not that anymore, but—bottom line—

'Buying crack cocaine around here is like ordering pizza—except they arrive faster'

we can do better.”

Every two weeks, Winnipeg’s new police Chief Keith McCaskill meets with his district commanders to assess trends. For every spike in the statistics there had better be an action plan. The city’s policing budget has jumped 14 per cent in the last three years to $160 million, 20 per cent of the municipal operating budget. “I’m not complaining about that,” says Katz, “but I can tell you this much, if we’re spending $160 million of taxpayers’ money on our police department, I want them accountable.” CrimeStat offers an unusual degree of transparency for a Canadian city. Katz intends to take it further, allowing citizens to received customized crime reports for their neighbourhoods.

Anti-crime initiatives occupied almost twothirds of Katz’s recent state of the city address. He talks of the need for surveillance cameras, and increased spending on graffiti removal. He wants a zero tolerance policy on aggressive panhandling and public intoxication in the downtown and the hard-luck Exchange district. He’s drafting an Aboriginal youth strategy that will focus on recreation and education and viable alternatives to gang culture. He backs the new federal crime legislation, with its mandatory minimum sentences for some offences and its hard time for gun crime. The Youth Criminal Justice Act is a prime example of what he calls the “catch and release program” of the justice system and the failure to impose consequences.

“They’ll arrest someone on a Tuesday for a B&E or stealing a car. They’re out on a Thursday committing the same crime.” He’s heard of cases of chronic auto thieves stealing cars to attend their court-mandated crime diversion programs. “I’ve seen mothers put their 12and 14-year-old daughters on the street to bring in money to help them with their addictions,” he says. “I hope the next time you and I talk,” Katz says of the crime rate, “we’re not even in the top 10.” THE FIGHT FOR MAGNUS AVE.

On a bright morning, almost too cold for crime, even a notorious street can look benign under a blanket of snow, until Sgt. Rick Selensky and Const. Jeff Norman pull up to 688 Magnus. Like many on the street, it’s a modest HA-storey house, past its prime. In the early days of the new year, someone emptied a gun through its front door, killing 28-yearold Jo-Anne Hoeppner. She was eight months pregnant, living in a crack shack. Messages

of sorrow are fixed to the wire fence: “Sweet darling daughter Jo-Anne and my sweet little angel (granddaughter) that I never had a chance to meet,” says one. Hoeppner was the seventh homicide on Magnus and surrounding streets in the past year. Hers was the ninth murder in a four-block stretch of Magnus in seven years; 12 other people were injured in shootings.

Numbers like that get Chief McCaskill’s attention, which is why Selensky and Norman and the rest of the street crime unit relentlessly patrol the area. It’s an extravagant

use of resources, but it’s the first step to taking back the neighbourhood. “It was certainly out of control, and people were afraid,” says McCaskill. The street crime unit is executing search warrants on drug houses, working sources and taking a low-tolerance approach to even minor crime. Like Katz, McCaskill is a feet-on-the-street guy. He’s instituting a foot patrol to build community relations and to ensure criminals don’t return once the crime unit moves to the next problem. “I think it’s going to make a huge difference,” says McCaskill. “We do have to help the community, but it is the community’s responsibility to come up with the resolution on how to make their own areas safe.”

A case in point: 387 Magnus, a neat stucco home on a double lot. “This was our first

house,” Larry Morrissette says with pride. “It was trashed. Completely trashed.” Morrissette is the guiding force behind Ogijita Pimatiswin Kinamatwin, a six-year-old program also known as the Aboriginal Youth Housing Renovation Project. About 100 people, many from the Indian Posse gang, have been hired and trained over the years. They’ve brought some 50 houses back from the dead. The program subsists on grants and donations, even one from a group of provincial judges. Morrissette grew up in the ganged-up North End, but he chose a different path. Many fellow

Aboriginals weren’t as fortunate. He does not evangelize. “We are not telling them to throw your [gang] rag in.” Some in the program slip back to gang life and jail, some go to university. He does not judge.

Morrissette sees home renovation as a metaphor. True, they repair “some of the damage they feel they have done to the community.” The real benefit is “decolonization,” he says. They’ve lost their culture, family institutions have collapsed, they live in poverty. The institutions shaping their lives, police and the courts, limit rather than expand their options. “Part of this is the idea of refraining the colonial relationship,” he says. “We have to rebuild. It’s us that has to do it. We could use support from other people but the bottom line is it can’t be taken away from us. We have to do the work.” One house at a time. SAVING POINT DOUGLAS It’s a year since Lori and Peter Toth moved from Calgary to Winnipeg’s troubled Point Douglas district, but, oh, the sights they’ve seen. It was soon apparent security at their Austin Street home was an issue, so Peter installed a surveillance camera. Then another. Then six more. They record the doings of a

`We have a serious crimeS problem. We're going to address it.'

very active neighbourhood. Cars stopping long enough to buy crack at a rooming house across the street. The flash of light on Jan. 29 that was the precursor to the arson fire of a nearby home. On Feb. 25, they recorded a cabbie being robbed and beaten. “You have video?” the investigating officers marvelled. They’d radioed a description to police holding a suspect four blocks away. “Hang on to him,” they said, “he’s our man.”

The Toths’ extreme neighbourhood watch has some neighbours uncomfortable, but police couldn’t be happier. Chief McCaskill

cites Point Douglas, and its proactive residents’ association under the leadership of Sel Burrows, as an example of citizens fighting back.

Relations with police, once strained, are such that the association booked an entire coffee shop for an upcoming breakfast meeting with McCaskill. The association is looking at summer jobs and recreation programs for street youth, it instituted a citizens’ patrol to keep police abreast of suspicious activities, it’s turning up the heat on landlords of derelict houses and drug dens. A provincial law allows peace officers, usually retired police, to put suspect houses under surveillance. “Based on the balance of probability,” says McCaskill, “they can go to a house and say, ‘look, you’re dealing drugs, based on the surveillance. Move.’ ” Those who don’t face a court order or a police search warrant. “The argument is it displaces the problem,” says the chief. “But what we look at is taking one community back at a time.”

Kids play in yards again, says Lori. People greet each other on the street. Just months ago there were some 30 crack houses, she estimates. “We had the area crack-free for a few days. Right now there are three houses,” she says, “all under surveillance.”


A guy, call him T.T. for the sake of his health, answers the door of a modest, neat North End house. He’s a long-standing member of the notorious Indian Posse. He’s carrying a coffee and warily looking at his watch. “This isn’t going to take long, is it?” he asks. “I’ve got a 6 o’clock stabbing to be at.” He pauses a beat then cracks a grin, knowing the best jokes have an air of plausibility. T.T. is in his mid-30s, not that long out of nearby Stoney Mountain Institution, having served serious federal time for armed robbery. He figures he’s been incarcerated for 10 years of his life. This time he’s aiming to stay out; he has a grandmother to look after. One expects he’s promised himself that before.

He was born in Winnipeg and gravitated to the gangs as a natural progression, the way middle-class kids join a hockey team. “A lot of parents weren’t around. They were either drinking or doing drugs or sniffing glue or

stuff like that,” he says, working a cigarette down to its nub. “We’d feed each other and basically look out for one another. As we got older, it got more serious, the levels of violence got higher.” He had two brothers in the Posse. They’re dead now: overdoses. He’s got nephews in a feeder gang of the rival Manitoba Warriors, not a good situation.

The gangs exert an almost magnetic pull on the most vulnerable in Winnipeg, considered the birthplace of the Aboriginal gangsterism now prevalent across the West. They find themselves fighting for turf and criminal market share with the likes of the Mad Cowz and the African Mafia, whose members were schooled in the violence and dysfunction of street life in Somalia, Ethiopia, Sierra Leone. Walls at the Winnipeg police headquarters are decorated with mugshot family trees of the various gangs. There are a few white faces, but predominantly

they are black or brown—as, inevitably, are most of their victims.

T.T. picked up much of his knowledge of Aboriginal culture in prison. “They have the sweat lodge and they give you all the teachings.” That, and finely honed survival skills, are the only things of value he carried into the free world from his “culturally appropriate” cellblock.

He reflects on the changes in his neighbourhood, poverty being the one true constant. “It’s just a circle of constant bulls-t,” he says. “Since this crack cocaine came around the violence is up a hundredfold.” He knows the police are watching, and any breach in curfew or probation conditions will return him to jail. To him, it’s a double standard. “I’m not racist, eh,” he says, but what about the perverts trolling his neighbourhood for girls? “It’s white guys and police don’t do nothing about that. Where’s the real crime being committed? Is it the guy selling drugs to put food on the table, or the creep cruising around trying to have sex with a 13year-old girl? “

He’s frank about his prospects. “Once you’re involved with gangs, it’s hard not to get reinvolved.” There could be an ugly situation that needs his help. “I kind of dread sometimes when the phone rings, you know?” He’s got their backs, they’ve got his. That’s how it works, even if it backs him into jail. “I’d more or less have no choice but to go because if I didn’t there’d be consequences. I could get stabbed. I could get beat up.” Like Mayor Katz, T.T. believes in consequences. NIGHT SHIFT

After the dial-a-dope bust comes the paper work. The dopers’ seized phone vibrates with new orders. “Here,” says a cop, “you answer this one.” It’s a girl, sounds to be in her teens, looking for ecstasy. She’s at a Mobile gas station. It will be a long, cold wait.

The arrest was minor, but it opens new areas of investigation and old areas of frustration. The drug suppliers, with ties to the Indian Posse, are well insulated by a elaborate system of call forwarding. They won’t even bother to change the phone number. The temporary loss of delivery staff, says Sgt. Hay, is “a cost of doing business.”

The juvenile who handed off the crack, a third-generation gang affiliate, is charged with trafficking. He is released, with pre-trial conditions. He was given a ride home. He is, after all, 14. M

They recorded a cabbie being beaten. `You have video?' said police