Act left hanging in this province is making a difference in Manitoba
RNC investigators examine the scene of a house and vehicle fire on Hamilton Avenue Friday.
— Telegram file photo by Keith Gosse
The man who oversees the implementation of the Safer Communities and Neighbourhoods Act in Manitoba says he was as skeptical as anybody that the act would make a difference, but he’s seen the proof.
Brent Benoit is the manager of the public safety investigations unit in Manitoba. That’s the unit that enforces the Safer Communities and Neighbourhoods Act — a piece of legislation meant to give Manitobans back their communities by targeting specific properties used for illicit activities.
It was on that province’s act that this province based its Safer Communities and Neighbourhoods Act. The difference is the act was passed in the House of Assembly, but was never proclaimed law, unlike in Manitoba, where it has been in full use since 2002.
The act was passed in Manitoba to battle incidents of crime that sound familiar to the growing issues in this province.
Benoit says his province was trying to find new and innovative ways to tackle age-old problems of drugs and prostitution — problems that traditional methods of policing had not fixed.
Benoit, who had a previous career with the police department in crime investigation, experienced first hand the frustration of returning repeatedly to specific properties known to be entrenched drug houses.
“We would go back time and time again executing search warrants, just arresting different people who were dealing out of the same place,” he says. “Needless to say, it was kind of a Band-Aid solution.”
The act gives the unit Benoit works for the ability to conduct investigations on certain addresses where illicit activity is suspected.
With trained investigators, the unit determines what is happening at the address and how much of a safety concern it is to the neighbourhood.
This evidence is then put to a judge. People can be given a warning or can be evicted. Under certain circumstances, houses can be shut down for up to 90 days.
When the act was first brought in, Benoit says, they had a specific residence in mind — one that bears resemblance to a St. John’s address that was the site of a murder earlier this year, 8 Tessier Place.
In Winnipeg, it was a known gang house and one that Benoit had been to half a dozen times in his role with the police.
He says it had been a drug house for years. The neighbours had given up hope that anything could be done. Then the public safety investigations unit went in.
“They had tremendous success,” says Benoit.
The unit was able to shut down the location for 90 days before it got rented again. That was in 2003, and since then there have been zero calls for police service to that residence, he says.
“You have people in this community who had to put up with this for how many number of years,” he says. “It gives people their street back. It gives people their community back.”
Curbing criminal activity
It was in 2007 when then justice minister Tom Osborne brought the act forward in this province and it passed in the House.
In an interview with The Telegram in May, Justice Minister Darin King said it’s likely that following the 2007 election, there was a cabinet shuffle and ideas changed. So while it had the support of the House, the act was left to wither on the vine instead of being proclaimed law.
Following the murder at
8 Tessier Place in St. John’s, Osborne said he thought the act could have prevented the murder because the address had been such a problem area for so long, the act would have enabled authorities to shut the house down.
In the May interview with The Telegram, King disagreed.
“From my perspective it’s a far stretch to even remotely suggest that this act, or any other particular piece of legislation, could have stopped a crime or deterred behaviour,” he said. “It’s really hard to combat crime when people want to be criminals.”
But some of the verbal evidence Benoit gives supports that the act could do just that.
“Part of it is understanding drug trafficking is a business. If you take any business out there where all of a sudden one day somebody shows up and says you’ve got five days to move your business and move out and you don’t have the opportunity to tell your customers, it’s really, really damaging to your business.”
And it doesn’t just move these people to terrorize another community. Benoit says they have only about a dozen people they’ve repeatedly evicted, and in a city the size of Winnipeg, that’s not very many.
Another thing to consider about the act, he says, is some people don’t want to be criminals and are grateful when evicted.
“(They say) thank you. I had no way of getting out of this. I got caught up in this.”
Benoit says it’s often a matter of gangs moving in and taking over a residence, or forcing someone to sell drugs for them. The unit’s activity sometimes helps people break free of that life.
A lot of the residences they deal with are gang-run, says Benoit.
Gang activity is something that’s been in the news recently in this province. A recent car fire on Hamilton Avenue and a suspected retaliation drive-by shooting at a house in Kenmount Terrace are thought to be gang-related.
Benoit isn’t suggesting the act can turn gangs into perfect citizens.
“But we’re able to cause a disruption which sets them back,” he says.
There were some concerns over human rights when the act was first brought in. Benoit says the activity has to be habitual and it has to be decreasing the safety of a community before authorities can act.
In one incidence, residents had a 15-year-old son who was selling drugs as soon as his mother went to work. Benoit says they weren’t about to evict those people, but they were able to halt the drug activity.
“I’m confident that I’ve never had somebody served notice to vacate who wasn’t involved.”
Much of the satisfaction for Benoit comes from seeing people get their community back once a habitual problem location is cleaned up.
“People suddenly feel like they have a sense of power again,” he says.
Having spent time on both sides — with the police and with the public safety investigations unit — he says despite the good work that the police do, sometimes it’s not enough to elicit the change that’s needed to stop harmful neighbourhood activities.
“I’m not sure traditional methods of policing would have addressed those problems,” he says. “This is something that actually works.”