10/23/2012 03:50 EDT | Updated 12/23/2012 05:12 EST

Winnipeg's new police chief criticized for saying prayer could cut crime

WINNIPEG - The new police chief in Manitoba's capital isn't officially on the job yet, but already he has stirred up controversy by saying religion could help cut the city's notoriously high crime rate.

Devon Clunis recently told a Christian newspaper that prayer could play a "significant role" in making Winnipeg's streets safer.

"What would happen if we all just truly — I'm talking about all religious stripes here — started praying for the peace of this city and then actually started putting some action behind that?" Christian Week quoted Clunis as saying.

"I believe something phenomenal is going to happen in our city. I truly believe it's coming."

Clunis was not available for interviews Tuesday. He is a longtime chaplain with the Winnipeg Police Service and is to take over from outgoing chief Keith McCaskill in December. The appointment was announced earlier this month.

While Clunis did not suggest making prayer mandatory or replacing any current anti-crime measures with amens, his view is off base, says an ethics professor at the University of Manitoba.

"It violates the norms of our secular society to be preaching the virtues of religion in general and prayer in particular from the platform of being a public official," said Arthur Schafer, who teaches philosophy and directs the university's centre for professional and applied ethics.

"We're not Iran, and we're not Georgia or Mississippi. And we'd lose a lot if our school principals, our university presidents, our chiefs of police ... were not just sharing their religious perspectives but advocating them."

There is no evidence that prayer reduces crime, said Shafer, who added that some religious regions such as the southern United States have very high crime rates.

Clunis is receiving support from New Democrat MP Pat Martin, who has opposed mixing religion with government. Martin has in the past spoken out against public money being given to a Christian group that set up a youth centre in his Winnipeg Centre riding, which includes some of the city's roughest neighbourhoods.

Prayer alone won't cut crime, anymore than it could "levitate the public safety building," Martin said Tuesday, referring to police headquarters. But prayer could lead to reflection and a change from the tough-on-crime agenda being pushed by Conservatives, he added.

"Lock 'em up and hang 'em high has only got us so far, but it hasn't made our streets any safer. And so if this leads to a more enlightened approach to these societal problems, hell, I'll join him myself."

Winnipeg has long held the title of Canada's violent crime capital. The city recorded the highest homicide rate among major metropolitan areas in 2011, followed by Halifax and Edmonton, according to Statistics Canada.