Watching the Downtown Watch

Critics say BIZ patrols are unaccountable, not properly trained

The Downtown BIZ’s accountability is under fire with no clear process in place to make complaints regarding their Downtown Watch Ambassadors. Cindy Titus

As Rob McGregor, a 23-year-old University of Winnipeg graduate, walked along Donald Street in the heart of Winnipeg’s downtown, he saw an unfortunate but familiar sight.

Sitting on the concrete sidewalk and drinking from an open beer can was an impoverished and visibly intoxicated man in his early – to mid-40s. The man was being approached by a young Downtown Watch ambassador, ostensibly there to provide the help and support mandated by the Downtown Business Improvement Zone (BIZ), which oversees the program.

What McGregor witnessed next, however, was not so familiar.

The Watch ambassador spilled the beer out on to the sidewalk. After a verbal altercation resulting in the man making a swinging motion with his empty beer can in the ambassador’s direction, the ambassador physically assaulted the man – slamming him up against a wall and throwing him down onto the sidewalk.

According to McGregor, the man’s face was cut significantly enough to draw blood and he was taken away in handcuffs immediately thereafter.

After witnessing the incident on June 28, McGregor called the Downtown BIZ, the Winnipeg Police Service, the Law Enforcement Review Agency (LERA) and Fort Rouge-East Fort Garry Coun. Jenny Gerbasi in order to make a complaint against the BIZ officer.

He was eventually told that the Watch ambassador was hired temporarily, had not received his full training and was being investigated internally by the Downtown BIZ.

“The (Watch ambassador) ran into an incident that is now being reviewed,” said Wraylynn Black, a Downtown BIZ safety supervisor who confirmed that the incident took place.

Although Black would not comment on the status of the investigation or the extent of the individual’s training, she did point out the distinction between Downtown Watch ambassadors and Outreach patrols.

The BIZ have no accountability except toward private interest.

Macho Philipovich, Winnipeg CopWatch

While Downtown Watch ambassadors have no legal authority and are meant to be the police’s eyes on the street, Outreach patrols are given special constable status to enforce the Intoxicated Persons Detention Act (IPDA), which gives them the power to transport and detain publicly intoxicated individuals, she said.

Because of this distinction, the Downtown Watch ambassador currently being investigated was outside of his jurisdiction by seizing open liquor and by attempting to detain another person.
The investigation is not being conducted by the Winnipeg Police Service, however, because complaints against each group are investigated differently.

“In the case of Watch ambassadors, we conduct an investigation and management makes a proposal (of how to handle the incident) to the administrative board, which will choose to carry it out or alter it,” said Stefano Grande, executive director of the Downtown BIZ. “For Outreach officers, there is the additional step of informing the police and if the police want to investigate, they can investigate.”

Some question why Downtown Watch ambassadors seem immune to the law and why Outreach officers are given police-like powers to enforce the IPDA without being accountable to the independent LERA, which handles police complaints from Winnipeg citizens.

“There is nothing at all substantial in terms of oversight (when it comes to the BIZ),” said Macho Philipovich, a member of Winnipeg CopWatch, a volunteer-based organization that monitors police conduct. “The BIZ have no accountability except toward private interest.”

McGregor, the assault witness, agrees.

“I don’t think they should be enforcing city (bylaws) or provincial (laws) without being a sworn police officer and going through the most stringent training possible,” he said.

Grande responded to these criticisms by saying that Downtown Watch and Outreach officers have saved police, fire and paramedics over $6 million since 2007 and that the programs are only as accountable as the Manitoba government allows them to be.

If the provincial government made Outreach patrols subject to LERA, the BIZ would comply with LERA, he said.

Published in Volume 65, Number 1 of The Uniter (September 2, 2010)

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