Slow ride to safety

Debate on transit security rages unabated following new proposal

Community groups have criticized the decision to increase security on Winnipeg Transit, but the union representing its workers says the protections are desperately needed. (Photo by Keeley Braunstein-Black)

In a city that relies on its single major mode of public transportation, the issue of safety on Winnipeg Transit is frequently in the public consciousness. Headlines often feature reports of violence in and around buses, and many people question whether Winnipeg Transit is truly safe.

In an attempt to address these concerns, the City of Winnipeg recently announced plans to deploy 24 peace officers on various Winnipeg Transit routes and at bus stops. The move makes good on one of Mayor Scott Gillingham’s election promises and follows an announcement in February that $5 million of the City’s budget would be allotted for the security team.

“We’re happy to hear about it (and) cautiously optimistic that this will address the need to make transit safer, both for the employees and the riders, as well,” Chris Scott, president business agent of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1505 (ATU), says.

A former transit driver, Scott remembers being assaulted on the job in the early 2000s. “It was like a sucker punch to the jaw just by asking someone if they want to pay a fare. They hit me in the face while they were getting off the bus,” he says.

The new transit security officers will coordinate with Winnipeg Police Service (WPS) and social-service programs, such as the Main Street Project and Siloam Mission. The full scope of the program has yet to be revealed, although Gillingham has said the officers will not be armed.

The ATU is advocating for the security team to carry tasers or pepper spray and have the ability to arrest and detain assailants.

“The mayor and members of council seem to be taking safety on the transit system and the desire to have a healthy, viable transit system very seriously,” Scott says.

Discussions around local transit security have only intensified since the stabbing death of bus driver Irvine Jubal Fraser in February 2017. With 130 assaults reported last year and numerous acts of violence reported on buses this year, the ATU says this is a long time coming.

Scott cites several policy changes, including the implementation of driver shields and an increase of transit inspectors, as ephemeral solutions to a persistent problem.

“This has been a progression. We’ve been trying to step up what is necessary to ensure a safe transit system. We tried incremental changes to address that issue of safety,” he says.

“I don’t believe that the security team will be the be-all, end-all answer of things. Our perspective is that this is the next step and hopefully the last step to cap the issue of violence on the transit system.”

But not everyone supports the introduction of peace officers. James Wilt, author, journalist and member of the police abolitionist group Winnipeg Police Cause Harm, believes the security team doesn’t address the fundamental problems causing transit violence.

“These violent incidents are undeniable. I want to emphasize that I fully understand the concerns of transit workers and the transit union. I don’t intend to downplay any of that. I just don’t think that transit security is going to help address the root causes of violence on transit,” Wilt says.

Wilt and others opposed to the increase in security question the scope of the project itself. While the City has planned a strategic launch based on evidence proving 40 per cent of assaults happen on five major transit routes, Wilt suggests it just isn’t enough.

“The transit system in Winnipeg is enormous and it’s really hard to police consistently at any level, especially with two dozen officers,” he says, mentioning how 80 police officers were deployed on the TTC in Toronto to ineffective results.

“Continued rates of violence will not propel evidence-based scrutiny of the program,” Wilt says. “It will be used as a reason why it should get more and more money. Twenty-four peace officers aren’t enough, so we need 50 next year, or maybe 100 the year after. All of that is going to be taking money away from actually improving transit operations.”

Scott says it’s too early to judge the current plan’s effectiveness.

“You need a crystal ball to really know if this will be effective or not. As with every other step that we’ve successfully employed, we’ve hoped that that was the last step,” he says.

Wilt argues that many of the same issues plaguing policing in Winnipeg will affect transit security, including the discrimination of poor and racialized individuals, as well as general ineffectiveness in deterring violence.

“We can look to the police as an example that increased security does not successfully deter or mitigate. It can often escalate, and, most importantly, it can take resources away from things we actually know can reduce violence and harm,” he says.

“We know without a doubt that transit enforcement is deeply racialized, which is especially worrisome in Winnipeg, which has a very large urban Indigenous population. I don’t think safety on transit can come at the expense of the mobility rights of the most vulnerable parts of our population.”

Scott and the ATU hope these problems can be mitigated through proper selection and training.

“You need a particular mindset to do this job, the same as a corrections officer or a law-enforcement officer. You have to have a level of compassion along with a presence of authority,” he says.

And while they remain divided on the particulars, both sides of the issue agree that more needs to be done to address the underlying social and political issues that lead to violent altercations on transit in the first place.

“This may be effective if we get the other levels of government funding for resources to address issues of housing or addictions treatment or even mental-health issues,” Scott says. “We need public housing. We need safe consumption sites, and mental-health care,” Wilt says.

But Scott is adamant that something needs to be done now to ensure safety for all on board. “This amount of money won’t solve the service woes of providing reliable, affordable and accessible transit. This should be used strictly for the purpose of improving safety on transit,” he says.

“It’ll be our job going forward to continue to advocate to all levels of government (for) proper funding for transit service across the country. The service that transit provides should be a right for everybody, not a privilege.”

Published in Volume 77, Number 24 of The Uniter (March 30, 2023)

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