Winnipeg’s police chief has been forced to declare a rare state of emergency to shore up general patrol resources after a spike in COVID-19 cases led to a severe staffing shortage.
Danny Smyth said Wednesday there were 90 active cases within police ranks. In total, 172 employees had booked off because of the coronavirus.
"We’re feeling some negative impact on our staffing as a result of the COVID situation in the city and I’ve declared a state of emergency internally for the Winnipeg Police Service," said Smyth at a news conference at the downtown police headquarters.
He assured Winnipeggers there isn’t a shortage of officers patrolling the streets and the service would continue to respond to urgent calls as quickly as possible.
The chief said he wasn’t aware of the situation resulting in an increase in wait times for priority calls.
About 900 officers were scheduled to work Wednesday. Of those, 136 — about 15 per cent — were on leave.
Smyth said he was "striving" to maintain the minimum requirement of 28 cars on each shift.
To fill in the gaps and maintain the minimum level of service, 80 officers from the community support and guns and gangs units will be moved to general patrol. They will start on Monday to give them time to prepare for a different shift. Their usual work will take a backseat while they help with calls for service, said Smyth.
Additional officers from other units will be redeployed to backfill on short notice.
The police service started looking at redeployment options once the number of staff on sick leave climbed above 10 per cent. It has about 1,445 officers and about 500 civilian employees.
“We still have some reserves that we can draw from to fill the front line. If we start to deplete those, then we’d be looking at restructuring some of our shifting.” — Winnipeg police chief Danny Smyth
The service was bracing for more staff to go on COVID-related leave during a wave fuelled by the highly transmissible Omicron variant.
If that happens, officers could be drawn from other areas such as traffic services or investigative units such as major crimes, said Smyth.
The service could also move to two shifts a day instead of the usual three, he said.
"We still have some reserves that we can draw from to fill the front line," said Smyth. "If we start to deplete those, then we’d be looking at restructuring some of our shifting."
There is still "a little way to go for that" to occur, said Smyth, who acknowledged the service is at the mercy of the virus and its spread within the community.
"We’re not in control of the timeline. The circumstances dictate that," he added.
Some officers have volunteered to work overtime. Cancelling vacation leave is another option.
Of those on leave, Smyth was not aware how many had been unvaccinated. More than 97 per cent of staff have been vaccinated against COVID, he said, and assumed a majority of those affected have had their shots.
The City of Winnipeg recently expanded its vaccine mandate to require all city employees to by fully vaccinated by mid-February.
Staff who do not get vaccinated or have an exemption must take regular tests and complete an online vaccine education course.
A police source said the number of general patrol officers "is always kind of running at bare minimum, at the best of times."
“So many of the guys are legitimately sick and the resources just aren’t there, so they are deploying from community support units, school resource, all the uniform positions that are non-investigative." — Police source
Add the pandemic into the equation and the service is being forced to fill the holes with officers from nearly every other service unit.
"So many of the guys are legitimately sick and the resources just aren’t there, so they are deploying from community support units, school resource, all the uniform positions that are non-investigative," the source said. "Every unit is being told, ‘’Get ready, you may be going back to general patrol.’"
Two other police sources said front-line officers are doing everything they can to stay healthy and on the job.
"It doesn’t feel like we’re struggling getting to calls," said one.
Smyth said the pandemic has been a "tough haul" for WPS staff.
"Morale has been challenging, at times," he said. "I’ve been very pleased with the response of our members and their professionalism throughout this ordeal. We’ll do our best to help them get through this."
The Winnipeg Police Association did not respond to a request for comment.
“I’ve been very pleased with the response of our members and their professionalism throughout this ordeal. We’ll do our best to help them get through this.” — Winnipeg police chief Danny Smyth
The chief has the authority to declare a state of emergency under the service’s collective agreement with the Winnipeg Police Association. The last time it happened was the 1997 Flood of the Century.
Declaring a state of emergency gives Smyth the "flexibility" to move officers to where they are needed "without necessarily following the letter" of the agreement, he said.
Recently, the province began allowing health-care workers who have mild COVID symptoms to return to work if they test negative for the virus.
The police service is not considering that option right now, said Smyth.
City Coun. Markus Chambers, chairman of the Winnipeg Police Board, was open to having a discussion with Manitoba public health officials to find out if they would advise that approach.
A spokesman for the province said public health had not been contacted by the police service, but would offer suggestions or guidance, if requested.
Chambers backed the chief’s plan and expressed confidence in the service’s ability to respond to priority calls in a timely manner.
He said 40 officers from community support, 40 from guns and gangs and 40 recruits up for field training would be available to support general patrol during the state of emergency.
The board chair said front-line policing had not been disrupted.
"We can continue to respond to the needs of Winnipeggers amid this pandemic," said Chambers.
People who reported crimes that are lower on the priority scale should be patient while they wait for police to respond, he said.
Chambers said he is satisfied with the measures the police service has in place to prevent the spread of the virus, including making N95 masks available to staff.
Meanwhile, the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service said the number of COVID-19 cases among its staff members appeared to be manageable. It had 77 employees with confirmed cases of the virus.
"Currently, approximately five per cent of the WFPS workforce have confirmed COVID. The department continues to monitor the situation closely, and thus far has been able to cover most staffing shortfalls through overtime," spokeswoman Erin Madden wrote in an emailed statement.
— With files from Dean Pritchard and Joyanne Pursaga