Lorrie Marlow has lived in Ottawa’s Mechanicsville neighbourhood for the past 15 years and has watched the place she calls home slowly turn into a feasting ground for developers who buy out buildings, don’t manage them and don’t develop them, leaving them in disarray.
Marlow, who is now president of the Mechanicsville Community Association, points to these buildings as some of the root causes of crime in her neighbourhood.
She said they are often rented out to irresponsible tenants and are not looked after or are just left empty.
“We see drug dealing, consuming drugs, drinking—usually publicly—[and] a lot of bad traffic,” Marlow said. “The buildings are poorly maintained and not air conditioned so in the summer there’s a lot of activity outside like fighting, harassment, [and] stabbings.”
^ Laroche Park in Mechanicsville was built to encourage friendly community spaces and discourage illicit activities in the neighbourhood, Marlow says. [Photo © Mackenzie White]
But crime has not only picked up near Marlow’s home. According to a Statistics Canada report released in July, the crime severity index, which measures the volume and severity of police-reported crime, increased by one per cent in 2016. This is the second consecutive increase after 11 years of decline.
A statement from Public Safety Canada released on Nov. 17 reported that the number of criminal firearm violations increased by 30 per cent between 2013 and 2016. In the statement, the federal government announced funding of up to $327.6 million over five years as well as $100 million annually thereafter to tackle gun violence and gang activity.
In Ottawa, gun violence and murders became a topic of concern last year with the number of homicides totalling 24. That is more than three times the number of homicides in 2015.
Mark Holland, the Liberal MP for Ajax and the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, said that he believes drugs are linked to increased violence. This fact was also addressed in the Public Safety Canada statement.
“There’s no question that the opioid crisis plays a role. As does the selling of drugs which funds illegal gang activities,” Holland said.
Irvin Waller, a criminology professor at the University of Ottawa, agrees with Holland. He also noted that it is a “universal truth across the world” that violence, property crime, gangs and drugs are focused in areas with higher levels of social disadvantage.
“You look at a map of where the homicides took place last year…you will find it concentrated in areas that are not particularly surprising,” said Waller, an expert in policing, crime and crime prevention.
Crime reduction initiatives
The new government funding and what it will go towards may take some time to figure out, according to Holland. He said the government will be funding prevention, enforcement, training and research initiatives but how much money will go towards each is not clear yet.
In March 2018, the federal government will be holding a summit to talk about the issue of gangs and guns and work collaboratively with experts, practitioners and front-line workers to try and figure out how to combat it. Until then, it is up to police forces, municipalities and communities to prevent this type of crime as well as many others in their cities.
Waller said he believes more social programming and prevention initiatives such as youth outreach centres and school classes and programs are the most effective ways to combat gangs, drugs and violence in communities.
“We may need to re-train or re-allocate police officers but we don’t need more,” Waller said. “We do need more investment in social prevention that so clearly and cost effectively can reduce this violence.”
In Ottawa, some of the wards that saw a greater increase in crime rates in 2016 are Kitchissippi, College and River wards according to statistics from Ottawa police. Kitchissippi ward saw a 20 per cent increase in crime while College ward saw a 19 per cent increase and River ward almost a 33 per cent increase.
Marlow’s Mechanicsville neighbourhood is located in Kitchissippi ward.
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“Last year we had a stabbing, a guy in a wheelchair beat up and a suspicious death,” Marlow said. “I thought it was a fentanyl overdose and it ended up being a murder instead. I don’t know what’s worse.”
While the community has an assigned Ottawa police officer, Marlow said the area they cover is quite large for just one person so the Mechanicsville Community Association has taken on a role in crime prevention, using tools from the city as well.
Marlow said she’s gone directly to owners of properties to let them know about illicit activities that may be taking place there. The community association also got together with children from a community shelter to paint a mural in the hopes of discouraging graffiti. Marlow noted that holding events in public spaces has also been good to bring neighbours together and keep illegal activities at bay.
Finally, Marlow said the Mechanicsville community association has taken advantage of Crime Prevention Ottawa which, through the city, funds and organizes projects and programs to help prevent crime.
Nancy Worsfold, the executive director of Crime Prevention Ottawa, said she thinks the city is doing well when it comes to addressing issues of crime.
“I think Ottawa is really well-placed,” Worsfold said. “There’s an agreement socially that these issues can’t just be left to the police.”
But Worsfold also noted that an increase in reported crimes may not always signify a bad thing.
“Sometimes crime reporting goes up, which makes it look like the rate has gone up but really what has happened [could be] a positive thing when more people are reporting crime,” Worsfold said.
When it comes to sexual crimes, Worsfold said there is an upside to seeing increased reports because that means more individuals are coming forward.
Cheryl Parrott, co-chair of the security committee for the Hintonburg Community Association, agrees with Worsfold and said that more reporting from community members has made her neighbourhood safer.
“I’ve been here since 1979,” Parrott said. “We went through some very rough periods but since 2010 it’s been completely different.”
Parrott said the community association ensured that residents knew how to report crimes to the police and fought to ensure Ottawa police would take reports both over the phone and online.
She also said many of the neighbours look out for each other and communicate with others when they see something that is a little off.
“It’s those neighbour connections that are so vital in maintaining the security in the community,” Parrott said. “If we see stuff going on, we know who to call. We don’t just say ‘oh someone will deal with it.’ People take action.”
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