Erosion of Legitimacy

Commentary, Government, Anil Anand

The City of Winnipeg has experienced a rash of liquor store swarming involving masked individuals who have become increasingly accustomed to experiencing little or no resistance. This has become a trend and one that the Manitoba Liquor Control Commission, store managers and the police have been challenged to stop.

It is a well known fact that the best deterrent to crime is not the severity of sentence or punishment, but the certainty of detection and apprehension. An even better and common sense response would be to mitigate the underlying precursors of crime.

The Manitoba Liquor Control Commission cannot direct its staff to put themselves in harm’s way by attempting to stop a lifter, nor should they. While some stores have resorted to security guards, there is little that unarmed and poorly trained security guards can do other than make observations, report and cooperate should there be a subsequent investigation. Still some stores have resorted to the deployment of paid duty police officers – a more effective deterrent.

As an act, the theft from liquor stores is not very different in reality than at any other retail outlet. However, the brazen attack of liquor stores tells another story.  It is a story of addiction, helplessness, and indifference for social norms and authority. It is an indication of an underlying erosion of social cohesion and the capacity of the community to respond effectively.  

The police can only be in so many places at any given time, and can only prioritize calls for services based on available resources and the seriousness of threat to person and/or property. 

For decades, the police have espoused community policing as a way for engaging and empowering communities to prioritize, and participate in determining community solutions. Despite this extolment, the police have failed to create any relevant community capacity; the type of capacity that prepares communities, and especially private for-profit businesses to respond in meaningful ways during times of crisis. 

Without that meaningful collaboration and capacity building, the police must assume the burden of accountability and legitimacy. If the police are unable to respond to the types of crises flowing from high unemployment, social neglect, homelessness, racism, and marginalization, the community perceives it as a failure of the police and justice system.  

The systemic failure of the authorities in turn contributes to a loss of legitimacy in the police. Citizens respond by taking matters into their own hands – the types of intervention reported by several citizens in Winnipeg.  

Such seemingly good Samaritan response risks escalation of violence by causing offenders to be prepared to encounter resistance and for the Samaritan to employ increasing levels of force. If unchecked, Samaritan responses can often evolve into a sense of vigilantism and de-legitimization of the police and justice system.  We have seen this in the form of private patrols by citizen groups such as the Bear Clan Patrol in Thunder Bay, Drag the Red in Winnipeg, and the New York based Guardian Angels.

The community is correct to blame the current state of crime in Winnipeg on a systemic failure. It is a failure of those entrusted with the substantial public resources for ensuring the health, safety and happiness of their community.

It is a collective failure of law enforcement, the justice system, corrections, and educators to have instituted the early warnings systems that might have enabled the effective and efficient responses necessary to mitigate the social crises Winnipeg is now experiencing. 

It is an even greater shame that the system is not demonstrating the effective collaboration to mitigate the future outcomes of the social neglect being perpetuated today.  

Anything short of a coordinated response by all social service agencies that addresses the underlying causes of marginalization and hopelessness, particularly of youth, is at best a band-aid solution.