What do you do when a burglar breaks into your home?

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(And other questions about personal and home safety)

An interview with Patrol Sergeant Phil Penner of the Community Relations Unit of the Winnipeg Police Service

English Online recently had the good fortune to speak to Patrol Sergeant Phil Penner of the Winnipeg Police Service about personal and home safety for newcomers. We discussed the best thing to do when there’s an intruder, how to stay safe on the streets, crime statistics, and other concerns new Manitobans may be wondering about. Here’s the transcript:

English Online (EO): Winnipeg is a generally safe place to live in, but are there areas in the city that are more prone to crime?

Patrol Sergeant Phil Penner (PP): Yes, Winnipeg is generally a safe place. But like any major city across Canada, there are areas that have higher crime rates compared to others. At the Winnipeg Police Service, we have the SPI System (Smart Policing Initiative) that collects crime statistics. If there is a higher incidence of crime in an area (we call them hotspots), we assess the information and send our resources there. We find out why there is a higher crime rate at this time, what are the issues and concerns for that area. Then we implement projects to reduce crime in the hotspots. I think that we have been successful over the years in reducing crime that way.

The incidence of crime fluctuates and sometimes we don’t know the reasons why. There are a lot of variables that you have to factor in. To educate the public, we tell them to be aware of their surroundings at all times. No matter what part of the city you’re in, or whatever season, you should be aware.

EO: What are the most common crimes in Winnipeg?

PP: Based on statistics, property crimes are the highest. That’s everything from shoplifting to someone breaking into your shed and taking a bike. We’ve seen a higher number of thefts lately from vehicles. That’s when someone leaves a purse, a wallet or a laptop or something of value in their car and thieves take that property by smashing a window if the car is locked.

EO: Do thefts occur more in the summer?

PP: Yes, it’s somewhat weather-dependent. We find an increase from spring through summer until fall in residential areas in particular. Weather does play a little bit of a role. In minus 40 winter days, the people doing those types of crimes are not out as frequently.

The Police Service puts out some more information and refreshers to everyone in the springtime. We remind them if you’re in your backyard, lock your front door. If you’re in your front yard, lock your back door. People may be doing some yard work and it’s a nice day so they have their doors open, or they have their windows open. If they’re in the yard, someone can walk by and see that they are busy. That thief may be in and out in 30 seconds to a minute and could have grabbed your car keys, wallet, TV, laptop, and gone before you even know what’s happened.

“If someone was pounding at your door trying to come in, my best advice is to get your kids and go out the back door. The worst they can do is break in and take some property. Property can be replaced.”

English Online (EO): Some newcomers may be doing shift work and have to be out during irregular times of the day. How can they keep themselves safe when they’re walking outside especially at night?

PP: We’re in an age of technology where we have our headphones on or we have our heads buried in our cellphones. If you’re walking on the streets, take those headphones out. You would want to hear if someone’s running up behind you. Know what is going on in your immediate surroundings. Get your head out of your cellphone or your gadgets and just walk confidently, see where you’re going, know where you’re going.

Let someone know where you’re going too. Tell someone I’ll be going out tonight to this place, this address. Expect me to be home by 8 o’clock. If you don’t make it at 8, that person can call to check up on you. Another important thing is listening to your gut instincts. If you feel that something’s not right, turn around and go the other way, or maybe go into a store that’s open, or get inside a bus so you’ll be safe and ask a bus driver to help you. But the most important thing we tell people is to be aware of their surroundings at all times, whether it’s day time or in the evening. Always be alert.

Personal robbery prevention tips with Police Sergeant Phil Penner

EO: In a newcomer online forum recently, I read that people are under the impression that if you find an intruder inside your house and you hurt the intruder or burglar in any way, you will be liable for it even if you are attacked. Is this true? What does “reasonable use of force” mean?

PP: The law says that you can defend yourself, your family and your property if someone was to come into your home. The most important element about “use of reasonable force” is that you have to articulate why you used the degree of force you used. For example, if two burglars broke in and they’re armed and you’re alone, using a little more force may be justified because they are armed and there’s more than one person. Now, if you’re three times the size of the intruder who is a young kid who is unarmed and you use excessive force, then you may have to answer to that in court. Another example would be is if you’ve scared an intruder off and the person is running away. You then run after and catch the intruder. If you continue to assault the intruder in some way, you will have to explain why you did it.

So I think the misconceptions are that “I can’t do anything,” or “I can do whatever I want.” Neither is true. You can protect yourself but what is reasonable depends on the circumstances. You would have to explain your actions in those circumstances.

EO: So what is the best thing to do if there is an intruder at the door or if we see a burglar intending to come into the house?

PP: If someone was pounding at your door trying to come in, my best advice is to get your kids and go out the back door. The worst they can do is break in and take some property. Property can be replaced. If you stay, you don’t know what their intentions are. You don’t know if they have weapons, or if they’re under the influence of alcohol or drugs. So leave. Call the police, run outside to a safe place.

The same rules apply in a robbery or assault (of someone on the street). When a robber asks you for your watch or any property, we recommend that you comply. Don’t confront. Again, the property can be replaced. It may be a pain because they took your wallet with your credit cards and you have to get them cancelled, but ask yourself, is your wallet worth getting stabbed or assaulted for?

Another thing is to get a good description of the perpetrator. Contact the police or 911. It’s a very serious offense and the police will respond to it as a high priority. The police will come, take a report, and with the description and with video camera hopefully in the area. We can figure out who it is, catch that person, and bring them to justice.

“Reporting a crime is crucial to crime prevention.As I have mentioned, we have the SPI where we gather statistics and pinpoint the hotspots in the city. If nobody reported a crime, we will not know and will not be able to mobilize police resources to that area. So it is important to report a crime, however small it is. You can even report crime online if you don’t want to call or come to the station.”

EO: In some countries, when you are robbed, for example, whatever property that is taken from you is considered gone forever because calling the police does not yield results. The culture is that reporting to the police would just be a waste of time. What is your advice to newcomers who have this mindset?

PP: I could imagine the frustration but a robbery and a break and enter in Canada are very serious offenses. All reports are taken very seriously. The police will come and do their job and they will do an investigation.

Reporting a crime is crucial to crime prevention. As I have mentioned, we have the SPI where we gather statistics and pinpoint the hotspots in the city. If nobody reported a crime, we will not know and will not be able to mobilize police resources to that area. So it is important to report a crime, however small it is. You can even report crime online if you don’t want to call or come to the station. Non-emergency crimes can be reported here: Online Report. The most important thing is that you let the police know because we will do something about it.

EO: In situations where a newcomer is a victim of racial slurs or openly and racially discriminatory actions, would you recommend that a newcomer confront the attacker? What would be the best way to handle this situation?

PP: If your life is not in particular danger at that moment while someone is saying racially motivated comments at you, don’t confront that person. Because again, you don’t know what that other person’s intentions are or if they have weapons. Confronting could spark an assault or encourage further threats to happen. If it’s non-threatening, just walk away. However, if it’s a racially motivated slur followed by a threat, for example, “I’m going to beat you up” or “I’m going to punch you” you can call 911. It’s a criminal offense to threaten somebody’s life.

If this happens to you, the best recourse is to get a description of the person, and if they threaten you, call the police. We will investigate it. We even investigate online posts that are racially offensive. If it’s a hate crime, we evaluate if this is someone whose actions could potentially escalate, leading them to cause harm to someone. Again, this is a high priority crime. Hate crimes are taken very seriously.

EO: Prevention is always better than cure. Can you give us some tips on how to prevent being a victim of a crime?

PP: Property crimes are generally crimes of opportunity. If you leave your wallet in your car, a thief walking by may not have had intentions of stealing a wallet that day, but if it’s there in plain view, you have given them an opportunity. So if we take away the opportunity, we’ve reduced crime.

The same principle applies to your home. Don’t leave things lying around in your yard that thieves can easily grab. Check if your garage door is closed and if your doors are locked. The reality is, if somebody wants to break into a house, it doesn’t matter if there’s a lock or if the door is sturdy. They will find a way in. But time is important to a person trying to commit a crime. They don’t want to spend 15 minutes at your door because it’s very solid and secure. The noise is going to draw attention. The amount of time is going to draw attention. They want in and they want out really quickly. So solid doors, good locks on your doors, and deadbolts are important. Lighting is very important. Criminals don’t want to be seen and they don’t want to be heard. Invest in motion sensor lights for evenings and through the night. We came up with a Personal Safety in the Home checklist to help home owners do all that is necessary to keep their home safe and secure.

EO: Personal/home safety is usually a part of newcomer orientations in Manitoba. But oftentimes, this gets lost in the vast amount of information newcomers have to take in during their first few months here. Are there programs in the city that newcomers can avail to refresh their knowledge and better equip them about personal and home protection and safety?

PP: We at the Community Relations Unit have about 8 or 9 different presentations on personal and home safety tips and crime trends. We also customize presentations depending on what a group needs. We can take questions via email or through a face to face Q&A interaction. For these presentations, we would appreciate a notice of around 4-6 weeks because of the demand. We usually hold community briefings for a minimum of 10-15 people.

We see these presentations as opportunities not only to dispel myths but also to break down some barriers. In some of the meetings we’ve had, you could tell that there is some apprehension. A question we often get is that “if I ever get pulled over by the police, how much do I give them?” We say no, that’s not done here. But those are questions from where they’re coming from where the reality is different. And it’s really interesting for us. It’s an eye-opener for someone like me who was born and raised in Winnipeg. It allows us to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. The stories and the history that people come with are amazing. These presentations allow us to tell them that we’re here to talk to them and help them. We would like for people to approach us and to come say “hi” if they see a policeman on the street.

(Responses have been edited for brevity and clarity)

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Community Resources

Go to Winnipeg Police Service Crime Prevention to get more tips.

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