Just Cause: Winnipeg’s Top Cop Puts Faith to Work

Outgoing Chief Clunis talks police philosophy and community building

By Rob Horsley

It was the fall of 2012, and according to a local tabloid, the city of Winnipeg didn’t have a prayer.

In early November of that same year, Devon Clunis, then a 25-year veteran with the Winnipeg Police Service (WPS), was sworn in as the city’s 17th chief of police. Just weeks before, Clunis had come under fire when remarks made to ChristianWeek, a local faith-based publication, were picked up by the Toronto Star before making national news. Mere days after being appointed to “top cop,” Clunis was already knee deep in controversy.

In the interview, Clunis had called upon believers of all religious stripes to pray for the city, in hopes that it might help contribute to a reduction in crime. Some took this to mean that he meant to do nothing but pray that crime would be reduced. Still others argued that it was inappropriate altogether for an official of such esteem to be bringing faith into the public square.

But for all the controversy, Clunis never backed down. “I’m a little bit disconcerted that what was presented as a message to bring people together and to unify this community is now being spun in somewhat of a negative light,” Clunis told local media shortly after the incident.

“The important piece of what I also said there was ‘prayer backed up by action,’” Clunis added.

Less than two years later, it would appear that Clunis had managed to do just that. In 2014, The Canadian Press reported that Winnipeg’s overall crime statistics had dropped by 14 percent from the year before. Contrary to what some had feared, it seemed as though the chief’s prayers had indeed made a positive impact for the city.

Which is why Clunis’ recent retirement announcement came as such a shock. In March of this year, the chief revealed that he was stepping down, after only three and a half years as head of police. Winnipeg Free Press columnist and outspoken critic Gordon Sinclair Jr. described Clunis’ announcement as controversial given its circumstances, speculating that Clunis’ decision was likely influenced by recently announced budget cuts and probable layoffs looming for the WPS.

But speaking with Clunis directly, the outgoing chief offers a different perspective, saying that the decision had more to do with being satisfied in what he had accomplished in the relatively short time served as leader of the force.

“There’s a total peace with the decision, knowing it’s the right time, and moving onto whatever else comes next,” says Clunis in an interview with SEVEN. “I don’t know what’s next specifically, but I look to it with excitement.”

Contrary to some of the analysis given by critics, Clunis’ decision to retire was not at all a difficult one, he says, adding that it was one he had been considering for close to a year before he officially announced he would be retiring in early July.

“There’s just been this growing sense of discontentment now within me that, ‘No, I think your time is done and the job you set out to do as chief of police has been accomplished,” he says, referring specifically to the mission statement put out by WPS in May of 2015, which sets out to “Build safe and healthy communities across Winnipeg through excellence in law enforcement and leadership in crime prevention through social development,” according to the organization’s website.

“I went into the job with a specific focus and a goal in mind—I had set my milestone. Last May 19th was when we came out with the new mission and vision for the organization that set us on a particular course.”

For Clunis, the last line of mission and vision statement of the WPS appears to be the key phrase. He implies that improved crime stats only give a partial picture of what he hoped his tenure as chief would accomplish.

“You can set new goals—for example you might say, ‘Well, I want to have this many cruiser cars in the next number of years or I want to reduce crime by this number. Those weren’t the types of goals that I set. For me, it was the actual transforming the entire culture of how we saw ourselves. I wanted policing to be seen as something which was a catalyst to building healthy communities—not just a crime fighting tool.

In Clunis’ estimation, it wasn’t enough to simply ‘bring down’ the overall rate of crime, or to make more arrests. Throwing criminals into cells may get them off the street, but fails to address the root causes of why people commit crimes in the first place, something he has been very deliberate in addressing with his staff throughout his time as commanding officer of the WPS.

“It’s now crime prevention through social development—not just thinking that ‘we need more police’ and that’s going to solve our problems. We really need to look at the deep, social, institutional issues which are driving crime,” he says.

“I think for a long period of time we weren’t addressing that—we just kept addressing what we thought was ‘crime.’ But I’ve really pushed us… we really need to start looking at the social determinants of crime. And was really great to see, now, that our citizens…they’ve adopted that.”

And while it’s one thing to hear a statement like that coming from the executive level, Clunis is also quick to offer street-level examples of how he’s seen that at work in hands-on ways among his staff.

“It’s doing the simple things like parking your cruiser car, when you see kids out at recess at a school, and just stopping, and going by and talking to the kids. It’s parking that cruiser car and going into a shopping mall—not because there’s a crime taking place, but just going to engage with people in a very practical way.”

“I remember one of our young officers coming up to me and saying, ‘Chief, that’s what wewanted to do, but nobody told us it was important.”

Looking back upon his comments regarding praying for the city, and whether he would change anything in what he said, Clunis maintains his stance and doesn’t back away from the faithbased perspective he’s maintained throughout his term in the chief’s office.

“What some would have considered to be a very negative thing that occurred, even before I was sworn in as chief… was probably one of the best things that could’ve happened.

“I’m proud of the fact that I stood firm on what I believe, and I actually brought the issue of faith and prayer back into what some would consider to be the public arena,” he adds. “I think that’s important, because I think for too long we’ve compartmentalized our lives to the point that we tend not to realize that a significant portion of our community are people of faith…who have a lot to contribute—and a lot of us do what we do because of that strong faith that we have. And we can’t just relegate that and say ‘well, that’s just a particular day of the week that we worship’ when we spend so much of our time in public service.”

In many cases, Clunis says it’s been people of faith who have stepped up to live into the philosophy of community building—and backing up prayers with meaningful action—a concept he’s worked diligently to implement as chief.

“When you look at some of the initiatives that we have undertaken, in some of the most socially challenged areas in our city, it’s individuals from the faith groups who are first stepping up—both in terms of human hours in volunteering their time, but also financially.”

Clunis says it’s been a huge encouragement to see citizens of different faith backgrounds—as well as citizens with no faith background at all in some cases—take on key roles in making Winnipeg a better place.

“We see where people hijack religion and they use it for all these negative events that we see continually. What if we just lived it out the other way? This is who we are. We’re not trying to preach to anyone, not trying to convert—but because of what I believe.”

As for what’s next, Clunis says he hopes to continue to be a force of encouragement and galvanization for people of faith backgrounds going forward, adding that he hopes Christians in the community will continue to see themselves as a force for good in their respective neighbourhoods. Christians shouldn’t be afraid of citing their faith as a reason for their actions, he adds.

“I think…oftentimes we do because we feel that because we’re in a public office or in a position of what we consider to be highly esteemed that no, we can’t say we’re people of faith. I think we really deny everything we believe when we do that. So I’d like to share that journey, just to impact people and hopefully inspire them to live out truly what they believe on behalf of whenever we find ourselves,” he says.

“Just imagine what the world would be like if we just did that.”

Rob Horsley is the managing editor of SEVEN, former managing editor of ChristianWeek, and a born-and-bred True Blue Winnipegger who now makes his home in beautiful Saskatoon.