Use of force by Winnipeg police most often involves hands or fists

1 / 2
Man asked to drop weapon 14 times before police shot him in downtown skywalk: IIU

Winnipeg police used force roughly once in every 240 calls they made last year, according to a use-of-force report published the very same day an officer shot a man wielding a pointed weapon in a downtown skywalk.

A report published late Monday, Chief Danny Smyth says the Winnipeg Police Service responded to almost 206,000 calls in 2016 and used some form of force 855 times.

That works out to a use-of-force incidence of 0.42 per cent last year, a rate in line with the reported rate for the previous five years. 

In the vast majority of cases, the use of force involved police using their hands as weapons. Police used open hands to stop or move a subject 688 times last year and fists to strike a subject 337 times, suggests the report, which was prepared for the Winnipeg Police Board.

"Intermediate weapons" such as Tasers, batons, pepper spray and police-dog bites were presented or used a total of 250 times, while weapons were pointed at people 187 times, the report suggests.

Police only shot at a person once last year — and didn't strike anyone with bullets.

"I'll tell you, man, 2016 was a good year. We only had one instance in which officers discharged their firearms at another person," said Patrol Sgt. Julio Berzenji, the use-of-force co-ordinator with the Winnipeg Police Service.

University of Winnipeg criminal justice professor Michael Weinrath said the limited use of firearms reflects well on the Winnipeg Police Service.

"Winnipeg police don't seem to use extreme force very often, which is good. It means there's some training and some adherence to policy," Weinrath said in an interview. 

"At the same time I think it's important we have the independent unit to investigate these instances."

That's a reference to the Independent Investigation Unit of Manitoba (IIU), which investigates all serious incidents involving police officers in Manitoba and is currently looking into the shooting in the skywalk. 

While use of firearms is rare, police are threatening to use or actually using Tasers more often.

Police pointed or deployed a Taser 202 times in 2016, according to the report. Three years earlier, they pointed or deployed Tasers 88 times.

Patrol Sgt. Berzenji said more officers are equipped with Tasers now.

"Instead of having just one Taser available for a two-officer crew, now in most instances each officer is going to have a Taser," he said.

On the other hand, the use of batons and pepper spray is uncommon. Police wielded batons 16 times in 2016 and discharged pepper-spray canisters only twice, according to the report.

"I really like pepper spray. I see a real role for pepper spray in the service," said Bernzenji, noting the spray is sometimes used not as a weapon, but as a means of clearing a small, confined space police happen to be searching.

The use-of-force report authored by Smyth comes before the Winnipeg Police Board on Friday, along with reports that indicate police pursuits are up slightly over last year, while serious complaints about police behaviour are down.