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Delivering Community Power CUPW 2022-2023

The food police

Food theft isn’t an indicator of criminality, but of a failing social system

Canadian PoliticsIndigenous PoliticsPolicingFood and Agriculture

A Winnipeg Police cruiser outside a No Frills grocery store on Goulet Avenue in Winnipeg. Photo courtesy CTV News.

When you head to your local Winnipeg grocery store, what do you notice? Do you notice whether it is particularly busy at the time of day that you visit it? Do you notice the current sales being promoted on exterior signage? Do you notice specials that are featured once you are inside the store? These might all be common things that shoppers are regularly attuned to noticing and seeing as they go about their grocery shopping.

Have you noticed police officers inside your local grocery store entrance? Maybe you haven’t because not all Winnipeg grocery stores are hiring Special Duty Winnipeg Police Service officers to stand guard at the front of their grocery stores—Winnipeg Superstore locations seem to be the most common place to find police. Or maybe you just haven’t noticed or seen them, even if they are there.

The Winnipeg Police would have us believe that police presence in grocery stores is ‘business as usual,’ and a practice that is not out of the ordinary. Increased securitization and policing quickly becomes part of the ‘ordinary’ for those who are not subject to its scrutiny, racialization, and criminalization.

If police presence in grocery stores is ‘business as usual,’ some Winnipeg residents have become increasingly concerned about this practice. Winnipeg media has covered several instances of Indigenous shoppers speaking out against racial profiling and criminalization by police officers in grocery stores.

In 2019 Chris Wescoupe spoke to CBC’s Lenard Monkman following a visit to the Bison Drive Superstore location where he was racially profiled by police officers working special duty in the store. Wescoupe was speaking with one of the officers at the front of the store, when another officer approached and indicated that he identified him as someone who had previously stolen from the store and told him to leave. With no evidence and no opportunity to speak to the manager, Wescoupe was denied service and told that he would be arrested if he didn’t leave. Wescoupe told Monkman that he has been going to that Superstore for seven years and believed he was profiled because he is Indigenous. Wescoupe has no criminal record and said he has never shoplifted. As a result of this incident, Wescoupe filed a complaint against the Real Canadian Superstore with the Manitoba Human Rights Commission.

At another Superstore location in the city—the St. Anne’s location—Jenna Comegan spoke with CBC’s Lenard Monkman after she was left humiliated and traumatized after a police officer working special duty in the store physically grabbed her and wouldn’t let go of her until she produced a receipt for her purchase.

While some instances of criminalization, racial profiling, and violent encounters with police have been reported on in Winnipeg media, citizens have also taken to other channels, including Reddit, Twitter, and Google Reviews, to both question why there seems to be an increased police presence in our grocery stores, and to report on interactions and harassment faced as a result of this presence. Winnipeg Police Cause Harm have also regularly featured reports from Winnipeg residents who are harassed by police at Superstore—including being followed to the parking lot, having their license plates noted, being mocked if they indicate they are going to file a complaint, and having officers refuse to give their badge numbers.

Instead of accepting the normalization of increased policing, we should be considering the impacts it has on those most disproportionately affected and whether this means some individuals will lose safe access to food and face increased criminalization. Police presence in grocery stores does not make for safer grocery stores, instead it actively makes grocery stores unsafe spaces for those who are most often targeted by police surveillance, which in Winnipeg is Indigenous peoples, black people, and people of colour.

Police in grocery stores will likely remain a ‘business as usual’ feature as long as grocers are transferring labour to consumers through a focus on self-checkouts, rather than paying employees to staff checkout lanes. The self-checkout results in theft, and with more theft, we will continue to see security and police in our grocery stores. Sylvain Charlebois, also known as the ‘Food Professor,’ has opined that “we all pay for food theft” because retailers pass on their losses to paying customers. We also pay for the policing of food.

As an assistant professor in Indigenous studies who studies the intersections of food security, policy, and policing I am attuned to issues of safe food access for Indigenous people in urban centres. If fear of police harassment, criminalization, and racial profiling are preventing Indigenous people from having safe access to food, we should be concerned. If individuals are taking measures to avoid police interactions at their local grocery stores and must seek safer access elsewhere, we should be concerned.

While some may see police as a signal of safety, or as an indicator that store product will be protected—as Winnipeggers, we should be thinking about who (and what) the police provide safety for. Not noticing, or not being concerned, about increased police presence in our grocery stores might indicate a normalization of policing, or that you’ve never felt the impacts of police presence and what that might mean for your personal safety, ability to safely shop for food, and to move freely without harassment. For those who are targets of police surveillance, walking into a grocery store and being confronted with a police officer might raise real fears—of being criminalized, profiled, or encountering violence.

As Winnipeggers, we should be asking: what are the police doing in our grocery stores? Are police in our grocery stores there to protect customer safety or store merchandise? Are police in our grocery stores there to stop food theft? Food theft isn’t an indicator of criminality, but of a failing social system that creates the conditions to leave individuals with no alternatives. Police in our grocery stores shouldn’t signal a need to crack down on food theft, but rather inspire questioning about why police are in our grocery stores in the first place, and what can be done to get them out.

Merissa Daborn is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Indigenous Studies at the University of Manitoba where she researches at the intersections of food, technoscience, surveillance, policing, policy, and whiteness.

A different version of this article originally appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press.

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