Winnipeg police step back from Project Devote to investigate cases in new way
WINNIPEG -- The Winnipeg Police Service is stepping back from Project Devote — a partnership with the RCMP formed in 2011 focused on missing and murdered and exploited people — and is consolidating resources as part of a new approach to its cases involving missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.
“It’s an expanding of our abilities that will include counter-exploitation, missing persons, internet child exploitation and the addition of a family liaison position to work in concert with the community,” Winnipeg police Chief Danny Smyth told reporters Friday following a police board meeting.
Winnipeg police will no longer have dedicated officers assigned to Project Devote but will continue to work with the RCMP to share any new information that could help solve cold cases.
“So we won’t have investigators resident at ‘D’ Division itself,” said Smyth. “They were working on very specific files there at ‘D’ Division. We’ll still continue to support that work, we’ll still meet and work with the RCMP when it’s required and when it’s necessary.”
Smyth said one of the strengths of Project Devote has been its ability to work and communicate with families but he noted only one of 30 cases has been solved.
“It’s been frustrating,” he said. “We haven’t solved a lot of the files that were historic files. I think they’ve been reviewed a great deal but we haven’t cleared very many of them.”
22 Project Devote files — 13 homicides and 9 missing persons cases — will be going back to the WPS and will continue to be investigated under the new approach.
The WPS said under the new approach the homicide unit, counter exploitation and missing persons unit will focus on investigations involving the exploitation of Indigenous women and girls which will include both missing persons and homicide cases.
Smyth, however, told reporters police will focus on prevention.
“We’re going to try an approach that works more with the community on the prevention side, trying to work in the counter-exploitation and missing persons side of the house before people become victims so we’re not dealing with homicide investigations,” he said.
Project Devote officers from the WPS were temporarily reassigned to the homicide unit in November to address a backlog of cases and Smyth said those officers will now be reassigned again to work in the new consolidated approach.
“I have been contemplating for a period of time now how we can broaden our abilities to serve the community in this area,” he said.
Smyth hopes the new family liaison will be able to help police better communicate with families during investigations.
“Communicating with families that are going through a long journey like that is challenging, particularly if an investigation isn’t advancing. That being said, they’ll have the ability to deal with one person,” he said. “I think it’ll be easier for everyone concerned.”
A spokesperson for the RCMP told CTV News the following about the decision by the WPS:
"This does not change our approach to Project Devote," the spokesperson said in an email to CTV News. "We will continue to investigate all cases thoroughly and will work closely with Winnipeg Police Services. The RCMP will supplement Project Devote with additional officers from its Major Crime Services when necessary."
RCMP said Project Devote consisted of eight Winnipeg Police Service officers, six RCMP officers and six RCMP civilians.
Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs Grand Chief Arlen Dumas said he was surprised by the move but supports the coordinated approach of the WPS.
“One would think the WPS would work with our office to build relationships and identify partnerships in order to find innovative and preventative ways, using a strength-based approach, to address the violence experienced by Indigenous women and girls. Regardless, the fact that they have created a dedicated Family Liaison position is good,” Dumas said in a statement. “I agree that it is absolutely important to work to ensure Indigenous women and girls are not exploited in the first place, but something about positioning it like it is an either/or proposition with dealing with cold cases rubs me the wrong way. We cannot forget about those women and girls.”
Not everyone is happy with the move. Sandra DeLaronde, co-chair of the Manitoba MMIWG Coalition, said the partnership between the RCMP and WPS was seen as a positive one by families of missing and murdered people.
“It’s shocking that they have pulled out of Project Devote,” said DeLaronde. “I think families felt more connected that there was a dedicated unit working to solve the cases of their missing and murdered loved ones.”
“Project Devote was seen as a model for policing across this country where there is inter-jurisdictional sharing.”