By Dave Branton-Brown
A new police unit plans to team up with communities and crack down on gang-related crime in Ottawa.
Staff Sgt. Mike Callaghan of the Ottawa Police Service, who heads the guns and gangs unit, says the new Direct Action Response Team (DART) will target known and suspected gang members.
The nine-officer unit is an addition that will be supported by the current 12-officer guns and gangs unit. DART officers will operate an evening supervision program to make sure gang members charged with criminal offences and released on bail or on probation don’t violate curfews or other restrictions. The officers will be in uniform to ensure a visible presence in communities and will patrol areas prone to gang activity.
“We want to make sure communities understand we want to work with them,” Callaghan says.
Gangs are less of a problem in Centretown than in some other parts of the city, Callaghan says. But the program targets the entire city because gang activities, such as drug sales, can move around, he says.
The unit, which started last week, is a proactive plan to address gang-related crime before it gets out of hand.
Ottawa is dealing mainly with young men that get into trouble with the law in groups, says Irvin Waller, director of the Institute for the Prevention of Crime at the University of Ottawa. This doesn’t always mean organized gangs, which are a larger problem in other Canadian cities such as Toronto or Vancouver, he says.
Waller says police units that keep watch on frequent offenders are usually a success. He says the new unit can do good things if it relies on crime analysis data.
“More policing is not necessarily better, it’s smarter policing,” he says.
Waller says he is hopeful that police can solve Ottawa’s gang problem and prevent it from leading to gang wars or the deaths of innocent citizens – problems that Toronto has dealt with in recent years.
A key role for the unit will be to educate the public about gangs and gang-related activity in Ottawa. The goal is to encourage residents to report gang activity in their neighbourhood, Callaghan says.
“I think that this is an opportunity for community mobilization,” he says.
Nancy Worsfold, the executive director of a city program called Crime Prevention Ottawa, says the new police unit could be a good addition to community groups that work to solve youth gang problems. She says community involvement means more than just reporting crimes, because troubled youth need programs that offer them a chance to turn things around.
“People need to fit in somewhere,” Worsfold says. “They need to see themselves as having a future.”
These programs can include anything from after school homework clubs to sports programs such as youth basketball leagues, Worsfold says. It is even more important to offer programs that help ease the transition from school into the workforce, she adds.
Crime Prevention Ottawa recently launched a youth gangs working group co-sponsored by the Youth Services Bureau. The new initiative brings together Ottawa community groups, youth groups, school boards, and police, Worsfold says. The project’s goal is to prevent youth from getting involved with gangs.
“Policing is a very important part of the puzzle, but it’s not the whole picture,” Worsfold says.
Waller also says strong community action is needed to make the new unit a success.
“It’s good to have a police group,” he says. “But it’s even more important to ensure that there is good prevention in place so that the young men don’t stay in these groups.”
The new police unit should be able to work well with the community because it includes some former neighbourhood and school resource officers. The officers moved to the unit from other parts of the Ottawa Police Service, but the program won’t actually increase the number of police officers.
The team received special tactical training, from legal training about prosecuting offenders to firearm training. It was also important to educate the team about Ottawa gangs and gang activity, Callaghan says.
The unit was made possible by a $510,000 provincial grant. The provincial funding is enough to run the unit for one year. Callaghan says police will then decide if they need to add more officers to the unit.
Lori Mellor, the executive director of the Preston Street Business Improvement Association, says she thinks the new unit is a good idea.
“I think we’re really lucky to have this proactive police chief,” she says.
Mellor says the association had problems with gangs at a local bar earlier this year. The problem led to a stabbing last July and Mellor says some people in the community didn’t feel safe. The association worked with residents, police and Somerset Ward Coun. Diane Holmes to remove the bar’s business license.
The problems have stopped since the bar closed, but Mellor says she thinks the gang members have moved to another part of town.
“They get chased out of one area and they move to the next,” she says. “If the police have the ability to be following these guys, they have a lot more ability to stop this kind of behaviour.”