We must fight crime at its social roots

The rash of liquor store robberies in Winnipeg says more about underlying social problems than it does about the effectiveness of police

Anil AnandWinnipeg has experienced a rash of liquor store swarmings involving masked individuals who have become increasingly accustomed to little or no resistance.

The best deterrent to crime is not the severity of sentence or punishment, but the certainty of detection and apprehension. An even better and common-sense response would be to mitigate the underlying precursors of crime.

The Manitoba Liquor Control Commission can’t direct its staff to put themselves in harm’s way by attempting to stop a thief, nor should they.

While some stores have resorted to security guards, there’s little that unarmed and poorly trained security guards can do other than make observations, report and co-operate should there be a subsequent investigation.

So some stores have resorted to deploying paid duty police officers. That’s a more effective deterrent.

Theft from liquor stores isn’t very different from theft at any other retail outlet. However, the brazen attack of liquor stores tells another story. It’s a story of addiction, helplessness and indifference for social norms and authority. It is an indication of an underlying erosion of social cohesion and the capacity of the community to respond effectively.

The police can only be in so many places at any given time, and can only prioritize calls for services based on available resources and the seriousness of threat to person and/or property.

For decades, the police have espoused community policing as a way to engage and empower communities to prioritize and participate in determining community solutions.

Nevertheless, police have failed to create any relevant community capacity, the type of capacity that prepares communities, and especially private for-profit businesses, to respond in meaningful ways during times of crisis.

Without that meaningful collaboration and capacity building, police must assume the burden of accountability and legitimacy. If police are unable to respond to the types of crises flowing from high unemployment, social neglect, homelessness, racism and marginalization, the community perceives it as a failure of the police and justice system.

The systemic failure of the authorities in turn contributes to a loss of legitimacy in the police. Citizens respond by taking matters into their own hands – the types of intervention reported by several citizens in Winnipeg.

Such seemingly good Samaritan response risks escalation of violence by causing offenders to be prepared to encounter resistance and for the Samaritan to employ increasing levels of force. If unchecked, Samaritan responses can often evolve into a sense of vigilantism and de-legitimization of the police and justice system. We’ve seen this in the form of private patrols by citizen groups such as the Bear Clan Patrol in Thunder Bay, Drag the Red in Winnipeg and the New York-based Guardian Angels.

The community is correct to blame the state of crime in Winnipeg on a systemic failure. It’s a failure of those entrusted with the substantial public resources for ensuring the health, safety and happiness of their community.

It’s a collective failure of law enforcement, the justice system, corrections and educators to institute the early warning systems that might enable the effective responses necessary to mitigate the social crises Winnipeg is now experiencing.

It’s an even greater shame that the system isn’t working to mitigate the future outcomes of the social neglect being perpetuated today.

Anything short of a co-ordinated response by all social service agencies that addresses the underlying causes of marginalization and hopelessness, particularly of youth, is at best a temporary solution.

Anil Anand is a research associate with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy and served as a police officer for 29 years.

© Troy Media


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