Many people use video chats to keep up with family and friends, but now Winnipeg residents can use them to chat with the police in the event of a break-in.

The Winnipeg police are testing a new pilot project this fall in which victims of a break-in can connect with officers through FaceTime or Google Duo in order to give investigators a virtual tour of the damage to their home.

The project is believed to be the first of its kind in North America, and Police Chief Danny Smyth says that it aims to tackle long response times.

“People were stuck waiting sometimes days for us to come and take a very basic report,” he said.

According to an annual report from the Winnipeg Police Service, between 2017 and 2018, there was a 19 per cent increase in property crime, believed to be connected to the city’s meth crisis. In just the past five years, there’s been a 44 per cent increase.

As the rate of crime increases, sending officers out to every scene can eat up time, and leave break-in reports piling up.

How does this new pilot project work?

After a homeowner reports a break-in to police, an officer will contact them and ask for consent to a real-time video inspection of the home. If the owner agrees, they would connect with the officer and the owner would walk through the home and use the video chat to show the officer the damage.

Based on that assessment, forensic and investigative officers can be assigned. Police say this also means homeowners can start cleaning up their home faster, rather than being concerned with leaving everything as it was for an officer to show up, potentially days later.

Aston Christiansen is one Winnipeg resident who has used the new tool, which was officially implemented on Sept. 13.

When she came home to find her house has been broken into, she hid her fear from her children and called police. She was told at first that it could take days for an officer to respond, but then she was asked if she’d prefer to FaceTime.

She told CTV News Winnipeg that she appreciated the speediness of being asked to do a virtual tour of her home right then and there.

“Doing it through FaceTime was just as good for me (as an in-person assessment),” she said. “It was super quick, it was easy, I was off the phone within an hour.”

Not everyone is enthused about the new program. Moe Sabourin, president of the Winnipeg Police Association, expressed concern about replacing the face-to-face aspect of policing, worried that it could extend to other, more sensitive types of policing.

“It’s (break-and-enters) right now, but what’s next?” he said. “Is it going to be assaults? You know, can (you) take a picture of your injury?”

The project cost just over $110,000, and will continue to be tested throughout the fall.

Smyth said the priority for police is helping people faster.

“If we can speed up our assessment and speed up our response forensically, I think we will do the citizens here and good service,” he said.