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Winnipeg Police Chief Danny Smyth announced that he was invoking an extraordinary power last used in 1997 so he could reassign officers from other bureaus to general patrol.The Canadian Press

Police forces across Canada are starting large-scale redeployments of officers to contend with pandemic-induced staff shortages.

In some cities, the plans include pulling specialist investigators from their duties to shore up squad-car patrols.

Police chiefs say growing numbers of officers are calling in sick because they are infected with or have been exposed to COVID-19. This, in turn, is prompting police leaders to ask healthy officers to put in longer hours and have their workloads altered.

As COVID-19 cases soar, public health officials have warned that public and private-sector organizations should prepare for staffing reductions of more than 30 per cent. Some police leaders are already speaking openly about the tradeoffs to public-safety.

“I’ve declared a state of emergency internally for the Winnipeg Police Service,” Chief Danny Smyth said in a news conference this week. He announced that he was invoking an extraordinary power last used in 1997 so he could reassign officers from other bureaus to general patrol.

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Chief Smyth said more than 10 percent of his officers were already calling in sick. “The initial units that are going to be redeployed are the community support unit and our guns-and-gangs unit,” he said. Later, he added that “some of our gang enforcement would take a back seat.”

Constable Jay Murray, a spokesperson for the force, said this has not happened yet. But “40 officers with our guns-and-gangs unit will be available on short notice to redeploy into general patrol roster vacancies if needed.”

A police union leader said ratcheting down gang investigations in a city with record levels of homicides could be a short-sighted strategy. “If I were running the service, I would be looking at other resources prior to guns and gangs,” Maurice Sabourin, president of the Winnipeg Police Association, said in an interview. He added that “our guns-and-gangs people seize probably as many firearms as what are seized in Toronto. And you can imagine the vast population difference.”

The pandemic has been impairing police leaders’ ability to act strategically for months, he said. “We’ve become a completely reactive police service.”

Many police leaders have asked the public to be more judicious about 911 calls and to report property crimes online. Such steps can help keep emergency lines open so squad cars can be sent to the areas they are needed most.

Police and other first responders constantly interact with the public, and do not have the option to work from home, making them particularly vulnerable to the highly infectious Omicron variant of the coronavirus.

Chiefs have broad powers to order their subordinates to perform unfamiliar duties. Some can also invoke rarely used emergency staffing clauses in their collective bargaining agreements.

Police leaders in Victoria invoked such clauses this week. In a statement, Chief Del Manak said Omicron concerns are leading him to channel more officers to patrol duties. “This redeployment marks the first time VicPD has enacted a clause in the collective agreement between the Victoria Police Department and the Victoria City Police Union (VCPU) to allow for this.”

Other officials have raised similar red flags, but have not yet used emergency powers. “Our Calgary police service has the highest number of COVID infections among employees since the start of the pandemic,” Chief Susan Henry of the Calgary Emergency Management Agency said this week. Police patrols will be bolstered, she said, by borrowing officers from long-term investigations, community policing and youth intervention.

The largest police forces in Canada may be best poised to deal with outbreaks as they have ready access to reinforcements from other parts of their sprawling territories. “We have contingency plans in place,” said RCMP Sergeant Chris Manseau, a spokesperson for the B.C. wing of the police force. “Individual units or detachments will enact them based on essential service requirements. ‘’

The Mounties, with nearly 30,000 employees, are Canada’s largest police force. The next largest is the Ontario Provincial Police, with 8,000.

“As a large, provincial service, we are able to redeploy members to any areas of the province experiencing a more significant impact, ‘’ OPP spokesperson Bill Dickson said.

He added that his force has just over 300 members off work as a result of COVID-19. “The OPP has not seen a major impact on frontline services across Ontario, despite the situation with the Omicron variant of COVID-19.”

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