A 16-year-old girl was brutally assaulted and nearly killed near the Midtown Bridge recently. This is the second assault reported on or beside the bridge in a few months. I walk over the bridge most days, but for some reason I can’t recall I hadn’t done so that Friday night. On any other Friday, I might have been the person that spotted her nearly lifeless body. Instead, no one noticed her until the next morning at 7am. She laid all night, alone, bloodied, and freezing right in the middle of the city, beside the lonely bridge that few venture to cross at night, while most of us slept comfortably, or caroused late into the night. It’s hard to imagine such a lonely fate, surrounded by so many people.
The bridge isn’t merely my conduit into downtown. It is also directly links my house to my girlfriend’s apartment. She never walks home alone from my house after dark. While I am one of the first people to point out that Winnipeg is generally a safe place, despite the reputation, all cities have certain choke points that people avoid. This is often due to a vicious cycle: it looks dangerous because there is no one around, and no one is around because it looks dangerous. In some respects, urban safety is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If enough people believe an area is safe, it can start to become safe.
At the north foot of the bridge, a large condo building is being built on Assiniboine. Just west of the bridge, another has broken ground. This will attract some much needed foot traffic under and over the bridge, as well as on the Riverwalk.
The influx of pedestrians will provide some all important eyes on the street, which should make the area feel safer, and should indeed deter crime. At very least, it will make it less likely that someone could bleed all night on the shore of the Assiniboine.
The south side will continue to be a bit of a problem, since there is limited foot traffic flowing north. Donald Street isn’t viewed as the most attractive place to walk, let alone over the bridge, so many pedestrians instead cross the Main Street Bridge just east, or the Osborne Bridge further west. Given that the biggest residential developments between Donald and Main on River are a social housing complex and a seniors’ home, foot traffic is particularly limited at night. There aren’t many people in the neighbourhood wandering out to bars and restaurants.
There are some very simple things the city could do to make the bridge and surrounding area safer. They can ensure that the bridge is well lit. It isn’t uncommon for lights to flicker or not turn on at all, which makes crossing particularly ominous. Ensuring adequate lighting is one of the basic elements of fostering public safety. The City should also consider trimming the wall of trees in Mayfair Park East that creates an enclosure where many people drink or use drugs beside (or under) the bridge.
While it is outside the power of the city, having the Riverwalk open for a longer portion of the year would also help by bringing more foot traffic. The city, for its part, needs to ensure that it is well manicured and lit while it is open to make it inviting.
The most obvious, yet most difficult solution would be regular police foot patrols in the area. The investigation of this latest crime was the first time I’ve seen police officers on foot in the area, even though it isn’t uncommon to see them drive around west of the bridge. Police on foot can have a significant deterrent effect, and make people – women especially – feel more comfortable walking around at night. Of course, Winnipeg already has one of the most heavily staffed police forces in the country. Any additional foot patrols would likely have to come from existing resources. The only obvious way would be to decrease the number of cruisers carrying two officers at night. Currently, one officer cruisers are prohibited between 7pm and 7am. Studies have shown that this practice is unnecessary, since low priority calls don’t typically require two-officers. The Australian Institute of Criminology found that the difference in terms of officer safety between single officer and two officer patrols is negligible. In 2007, two-officer patrols made up only 75% of Vancouver Police night time patrols. Ottawa uses exclusively single officer cars. Even moving towards Vancouver levels would free up a lot of officers to walk the beat.
While the city has to play a role in improving public safety in the area, a big part of the solution has to be residents – men, in particular. Yes, it’s a bit dodgy, and, yes, the adjacent park is, too. But if you are afraid to walk at night because there is no one around, imagine how much worse it feels for women. It’s not so bad if you’re a man, since no one is likely to sexually assault you.
I walk that bridge all hours of the night, and I walk through Mayfair Park East intentionally because I feel it’s my civic duty. Public safety isn’t all about policing. It’s about the decisions you and I make every day. Maybe instead of walking up the more comfortable Main Street Bridge, meander over the Midtown Bridge some time instead. It might not seem to make much of a difference, but you might make someone feel a little less vulnerable. That might not seem to make a big difference, but small things add up. Perception can become reality when it comes to public safety. Let’s all pretend it is a little safer than it is, and we might surprise ourselves.
Steve Lafleur is the Assistant Director of Research for the Frontier Centre for Public Policy (www.fcpp.org).
All photos by Steve Lafleur