Bar None member Bronwyn Dobchuk-Land appeared on CBC Manitoba’s “Up to Speed” with Ismaila Alfa on March 27, 2019. A lightly-edited transcript appears below.
- Ismaila Alfa
- What’s the city’s response to a meth crisis? More security, including police. We’ve seen airport-like security at the Millennium Library and police officers stationed at liquor stores. Liquor stores are also checking bags and asking to see ID at the door as you enter. And recently, Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries has taken the controversial step of publishing the names of people charged with theft. But does it work? And is more security the only answer? Bronwyn Dobchuk-Land is an assistant professor in criminal justice at the University of Winnipeg.
- Bronwyn Dobchuk-Land
- Good afternoon, thanks so much for having me.
- Really happy to have you here. So a lot of increased security seen in this city is in direct response to the ongoing meth crisis. I mean, you hear about it all the time. What are your views on the crisis?
- Yeah, well that’s a great question. I think my views on the crisis is that we have crises but I don’t think they are meth crises. I don’t think we have a meth crisis. There’s nothing inherently about meth use that makes somebody act violently or makes somebody act unpredictably. When meth use is mixed with being underfed, underslept, maybe being homeless, maybe that’s why you’re underslept and underfed: these are the situations in which people might begin to have meth-induced psychosis, might be acting violently unpredictably.
So I think we need to, first of all, call the crisis what it is: we have a housing crisis, we have a lack of income crisis, a welfare crisis, a remand crisis, we have a crisis of over-surveillance and under-support.
And I think we’re reaching a crisis of too much policing. There’s actually a point at which increasing security and increasing policing makes people’s lives less stable and I think we need to take that seriously in Winnipeg.
- So where is that line, then? I mean, I mentioned a number of different types of security that we’re seeing implemented here in Winnipeg, at the Millennium Library checking bags, police, and that sort of thing. Where is the line? Where did we pass?
- We passed the line a while ago I think I mean the city budget for policing in Winnipeg has been going up over the past 15 years, now it’s a third of the city budget. So the city spends around 300 million dollars a year on policing with no increased safety to show for it and in fact there’s no evidence that increasing policing prevents crime or makes people more safe.
There’s no evidence that putting these security checkpoints at the library are going to make people safer. I do understand that they make people feel safer, right, but so, I understand that workers in the library have been feeling unsafe by the behaviour of people who are acting unpredictably. But you know, if
somebody wants to make a weapon in the library they can find a way to
make it inside the library.
We’re not dealing with the the root causes, so to speak, of what is causing people themselves to be in crisis. If we put the safety of the people who are suffering these crises at the centre, we would see that the way to take these crises seriously is to surround those people with supports. Anything less than that is actually not taking anybody’s safety seriously.
- How can we take this on then… is there a way to balance those two things? Because the perception of safety is important as well for the public.
- As are the crises you mentioned there. I mean, making sure that we reduce homelessness and reduce poverty and that sort of thing, very important as well. But can we do both of those things at the same time?
- Well let me speak to the part about addressing poverty and homelessness: I don’t think that a police response is ever going to be an appropriate response to a drug crisis. When police respond to people in crises they are much more likely to escalate the situation than to actually solve the situation.
But if we think about the scale of funding that the police get, from last year to this year the police budget increased by ten million dollars. That represents three percent of the police budget. Just this week the West End 24-hour safe space is having to close their doors because they can’t afford to stay open seven nights a week in order to serve dozens and dozens, hundreds of people, thousands of visits over the years for people who would otherwise be on the streets at night.
For $500,000 a year, they could operate a safe space that has a social worker, a public health worker, other frontline staff there. There could be 20 of those safe spaces for the amount of money by which we increased the police budget last year.
So I can say that the police likely wouldn’t have felt that decrease that much, the lack of increase rather, but increasing the number of safe spaces where people who would otherwise be on the street can go to chill out, sleep, get some food, reduce the stress, the incredible stress that they’re facing in their lives for all sorts of reasons. That is actually a really quick fix that that we can do in the short term. So it’s not just about, I mean I think there are short medium and long term solutions.
And of course we need more housing, we need more income opportunities for people and those are those are longer-term solutions. But there are also things, really concrete things we can do in the short term that aren’t policing.
- How do we impact the public opinion on that, then, because I think, now, I may be mistaken, if you were to walk down the street here and talk to ten people and you gave them the option of putting more money into a drop-in centre, or putting more money in the purse of the police to help them stay safe, do you think that people would consider putting that money into the drop-in centre?
- I think we have to give the public a little bit of credit. I think people have pretty contradictory ideas about policing and safety. I think people understand that when people are vulnerable, and they have a lot of needs, and their lives are unstable, that they pose a risk to themselves and potentially to other people. I think also we might find that the people we stop on the street might have loved ones who have been in jail, who have been drug users, who have been in situations where they could have been met with care, but instead were met with punishment.
And I think that we really need to start with talking to meth users, former meth users, and the people who love them and are trying so hard to surround them with the supports that will allow them to survive; trying so hard often to keep them out of contact with the police too, while at the same time we’re flooding the streets with more police and making their lives more difficult, less safe, more precarious, which is actually only amping up the stress levels that could make their meth use dangerous.
- You just a moment ago mentioned care versus punishment, I wonder what you think of Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries’ latest decision to publish the names of people charged, not necessarily convicted, but charged with theft in liquor stores?
- I think that’s horrible. I mean, they’ve been charged, they haven’t been convicted, first of all. I don’t understand the point. I think that it’s shocking to me that we have so much panic around liquor theft. You know, people are dying on the streets because they don’t have a place to sleep.
I think that we really need to think about whose safety and security we are considering in these moments. I’ve seen people walk out of the LC that I go to with bottles of liquor; it only becomes a violent situation if somebody tries to intervene.
So if we’re just talking about property theft and we’re not talking about violence, I’d say knock it down on the list of priorities because there are people dying and suffering out there, they’re starving, and they’re freezing to death.
- Pushing, I know this is, pushing the ethics of that aside yeah for just a moment.
- Is it effective as a deterrent?
- No, no. It’s not an effective deterrent. Public shaming and punishment: there is no evidence that those things are effective deterrents, and you can read any criminological scholarship on it.
We have an attachment to punishment, an attachment to policing, I think, because people intuit, they feel that that is a quick fix, a quick resolution, but if we were really going to be implementing evidence-based policies, these would be policies that address the needs of the people who are, you know, supposedly causing these threats.
- Bronwyn, it’s been great speaking with you, I hope we get a chance to do this again.
- Thank you so much.
- Bronwyn Dobchuk-Land is an assistant professor in criminal justice at the University of Winnipeg.