The greater incidence of protests, marches and public events, including anti-mask and anti-vaccine rallies, has taken a toll on Winnipeg police staffing.
Supt. Dave Dalal, who oversees the police service's event command group, told the Winnipeg Police Board Friday some events have the potential to become volatile as people's emotions spill over on everything from pandemic rules to reconciliation issues.
So far this year, officers have been deployed to 110 events. Until 2017, the city averaged 12 to 15 events annually. Social media has made it much easier for rallies to be held, he said.
"Anybody with a social media account is capable of creating an event that then requires some level of police attention or response," Dalal told the board, noting he was referring to events that took place without a parade permit being filed beforehand.
"That police response can range from… simply monitoring online to determine what risk, if any, it may present to public safety, to the full deployment of officers to the event."
Dalal said engaging with protest organizers to assess risk and offer safety advice, to eventually deploying officers, happens almost daily.
Generally, when police assess events as medium- to high-risk, the service will deploy officers who are trained to de-escalate tense situations and manage crowds, and have experience with crowd-control equipment and safety gear.
"Using (the crowd management unit) for every event, though, is not necessary, reasonable or fiscally sound. These officers come from across all areas of the service and dedicating these members to each and every event would come at a high cost, and not just financially, but operationally, as well," Dalal told the board.
Community support officers are often reassigned to manage events, with general patrol cops called in as a last resort.
"It puts a strain on our ability to respond to calls for service in the community and takes officers away from their critical role doing that," Dalal said, though he repeatedly noted the goal of police is to ensure demonstrations are conducted safely, while respecting the right to protest.
"Using (the crowd management unit) for every event, though, is not necessary, reasonable or fiscally sound. These officers come from across all areas of the service and dedicating these members to each and every event would come at a high cost, and not just financially, but operationally, as well." ‐ Supt. Dave Dalal, Winnipeg Police Service
Police Chief Danny Smyth said the large number of demonstrations means the service will have to reassess its response.
"We’ll have to take a pretty close look at how we do this… and perhaps make some adjustments," Smyth told reporters after the meeting.
Police might train more officers in basic crowd control, Smyth said.
About 40 per cent of unpermitted demonstrations over the past two years have been pandemic-related, including anti-vaccine and anti-mask protests. An anti-vaccine mandate demonstration outside the Health Sciences Centre on Sept. 1 drew criticism after some patients said they had trouble entering the hospital.
"I’m not a big fan of anyone protesting someone who might be going to a hospital for medical care. I’ve always been supportive of people's right to protest… places like city hall or the legislature might be more appropriate," Smyth said.
He said more demonstrators showed up than police had anticipated and officers had to call for backup.
"We learn how to plan based on our experiences… I can assure you that we’ll be taking different plans should (a hospital protest) go forward in the future... I think our general approach would be to steer them into a different location," the chief said.
"You can't be blocking emergency departments at hospitals."
Erik Pindera is a multimedia producer at the Winnipeg Free Press.