Portage la Prairie residents, business owners raise concerns over crime, safety

Leaders in Portage la Prairie say they are taking steps to combat crime and make the community safer, but one local business owner believes until there are changes to the criminal justice system, there is little the city can do to solve the problems it is facing.

According to Portage la Prairie Mayor Sharilyn Knox, residents and business owners have been, in recent months, continuously raising concerns about crime and safety in the southwestern Manitoba city of about 13,000 residents.

A main concerns Knox and other members of council hear about is safety in the city’s downtown core, and the safety of those who work in businesses downtown, as there have been alarms raised about theft, as well as the unruly and sometime scary or aggressive behavior of some who enter downtown businesses.

Knox said council is hoping a new program in the city will alleviate some of those concerns, as she said the city’s new Community Safety Officer (CSO) program recently got up and running, and paid SCOs are now patrolling streets looking to combat crime and bring a sense of security, as part of a program that allows municipalities to hire CSOs who are trained by the provincial government.

“A big thing we’ve been told already is it just gives some peace of mind and alleviates some of those fears,” Knox said. “In many cases there are younger staff working or people working alone, and to just see officers walking through their store is a big deal for them, and something they are looking forward to.”

The city is now also asking residents and visitors to let them know what they believe would make a safer and healthier community, as last week council released a Community Safety and Well-being survey.

The survey can be filled out on the city’s website confidentially, as Knox said they are looking for “frank and honest” answers, and once information is compiled said they will use what is learned to determine where money and resources can best be used to keep the community safe and healthy.

“A big part of the engagement process is finding out from our community what is actually happening and what is needed, we don’t want to just throw money at the problem, “Knox said. “We don’t want to put money out there for resources that aren’t necessary, because we also want to do this in a way that is fiscally responsible.”

But Knox admitted she believes part of the responsibility to address the ongoing crime issues lies with the criminal justice system in Manitoba and with the current bail system, as she says she hears from business owners and residents that police continue to arrest offenders and put them back on the streets where they often reoffend.

“We often hear about a lack of consequences, and people being arrested and the next day they are back on the street, and back committing crimes,” Knox said.

“So it’s hard, because how do you get ahead of that?”

Arishya Aggarwal along other members of her family, own and operate several Portage-based businesses including Olina Fashions and Olina Jewellery, and she said they continuously deal with thefts from their fashion business that are in some cases planned out, and can lead to as much as $500 worth of merchandise stolen per incident.

She puts the blame for the issues squarely on the criminal justice system, and said although she appreciates some of the city’s recent efforts, she does not believe they will be enough to slow crime and theft in Portage.

“The real issue in Portage la Prairie is not a lack of community presence,” Aggarwal said. “The root cause of crime is the justice system's failure to hold criminals accountable. The CSO initiative is just a Band-Aid that won't solve the problem.

“Criminals know that there are no consequences to their actions, which emboldens them to commit crimes with impunity and shamelessness. They won't get arrested, and if they do, they'll be released the next day, allowing them to continue their criminal activities.”

In an email sent to the Winnipeg Sun earlier this year, an RCMP spokesperson said RCMP will respond to theft calls, but admitted theft is a crime that can often be difficult to arrest and prosecute suspects, and one where suspects often end up being released.

“In many cases the theft occurs quickly and when officers arrive the suspect has already fled the area. Patrols are made, however in many cases it is hard to obtain a good description of the suspect, as they tend to cover their faces etc.,” the spokesperson said.

“It should also be noted that when we do make an arrest, if the charges are solely property crime offences, the accused is usually released with an upcoming court date.”

— Dave Baxter is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the Winnipeg Sun. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.

Dave Baxter, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Sun