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Police chief ‘misconstrued’ on controversial prayer statement

St. Boniface Cathedral at night

Anthony Fernando/Courtesy of Destination Winnipeg

Winnipeg's new police chief stood by his comments on religion Wednesday – comments which have led to something of a baptism by fire in media relations.

Devon Clunis, a long-time police officer and chaplain who will take over as chief in December, has faced criticism for telling a Christian magazine that prayer could help reduce crime in the Manitoba capital.

"What would happen if we all just truly – I'm talking about all religious stripes here – started praying for the peace of this city and then actually started putting some action behind that?" he told Christian Week earlier this month.

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The article led to accusations that Mr. Clunis was mixing religion and public office or trying to force religion down people's throats.

The police service at first rejected media requests for interviews with Mr. Clunis on Wednesday. He left the force's daily news conference before question time began, as a media relations officer was running through a list of overnight crimes.

Reporters tried to follow him but were told he would not comment. Minutes later, he returned to field questions. "I'm not saying I'm asking police officers to sit down and pray and that's going to be our initiative," Mr. Clunis said. "My statement has been misconstrued and only pieces have been reported on."

Mr. Clunis said he was speaking to a Christian publication and targeting his message to that audience.

"If I'm speaking to a group of individuals who are, let's say for example, involved in sport, I would definitely tell them to utilize their sports to engage their community. But because I was speaking to this specific group, I realized what appeals to them and said 'by all means, utilize that'."

In the Christian newspaper article, Mr. Clunis never suggested making prayer mandatory or replacing any current anti-crime measures with amens. But the mere mention of religion from a public official raised concerns in online forums and from observers such as Arthur Schafer, an ethics professor at the University of Manitoba.

Mr. Clunis appeared to be advocating religion from a public office, Mr. Schafer said, something one might expect in Iran or other religion-based countries.

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Mr. Clunis has also received a lot of support from people who think that the media made a mountain out of a mole hill and that some prayer could do no harm. New Democrat MP Pat Martin, who has opposed a government-funded religious youth centre in his Winnipeg riding, said Mr. Clunis deserved a break.

Prayer and reflection could lead to a change in crime-fighting strategies to address poverty and other societal issues in high-crime areas, Mr. Martin said earlier this week.

Winnipeg's crime rate is the highest in Canada almost every year. The city recorded the highest homicide rate among major metropolitan areas in 2011, followed by Halifax and Edmonton, according to Statistics Canada.

Mr. Clunis said he doesn't regret making his comments and he appeared to take a swipe at the media storm that has followed.

"I am a little bit surprised at the nature of the negative reaction," he said.

"The fact that within a community like this, we can take something which is such an innocent comment meant for good, and utilize it to such a negative effect, we sometimes wonder why our community is the way it is. We shouldn't really be so quick to judge someone without sitting down and having a good conversation with them."

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