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Canada Ottawa’s ‘record year’ for gangs and gun violence puts police under pressure

A police car is seen outside of Ottawa Police headquarters. Ottawa police say they have increased their resources to deal with a record number of shootings in the capital this year.

DAVE CHAN/The Globe and Mail

Ottawa police say they have increased their resources to deal with a record number of shootings in the capital, but the chair of the city's police board is pushing for an all-out response to stop gang violence in the city that is worse than ever before.

The majority of gun violence in Ottawa this year has been gang-related, according to Staff Sergeant Ken Bryden of the guns and gangs unit. Ottawa has now seen 48 shootings in 2014, including two on Monday and another on Boxing Day at an outlet mall. That's a 60-per-cent increase in shootings compared with the previous year, when the city had 30 in total.

"If you look at the statistics, at the sheer numbers, it is a record year," Staff Sgt. Bryden said. He estimated that gang violence played a part in 85 per cent of this year's shootings.

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A number of factors have contributed to this surge, including an increase in gangs and their structure and organization, according to police.

"The increase comes in spurts where there's a spike but the overall increase has been gradual," Staff Sgt. Bryden said. "The number itself in terms of the street gangs is a very fluctuating number but the driving force behind the criminal element, predominantly is the drug trade, which is a very cutthroat business. With that, we have our disputes, our disagreements and more often than not those will result in some form of violence, be it a knifing incident, a shooting incident or a fight."

The police have responded by expanding the Direct Action Response Team component of its guns and gangs unit, which are the uniformed officers deployed to areas most affected by gang violence.

Staff Sgt. Bryden said these officers are very directed in terms of their tasks, as they are assigned to keep tabs on the more prolific gang members in the community and administer compliance tests on known offenders. The police are also directing frontline officers to patrol affected areas, when not responding to emergency calls, in order to stay proactive.

But Ottawa Councillor Eli El-Chantiry, chair of the Ottawa Police Services Board, said gang activity is less concentrated in particular areas than it used to be.

"Now it seems the show is on the road," he said. "They could be in the mall, they could be in a bar, they could be in the east, they could be in the west. They could be anywhere in the city, so it's making it more challenging. In the past people said 'we need more police for our area.' Well, obviously, that's not the case today."

Mr. El-Chantiry said he wants the police to pool all their resources into this issue for now. He said he is concerned with how accessible handguns have become and that, sooner or later, civilian casualties are bound to happen.

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"It happened to Toronto, it can happen somewhere else. Some innocent bystander is going to get in the crossfire," he said. "That's my fear. That's why I want action and I want it today."

Staff Sgt. Bryden said the police's investigative unit has also seen a boost in size and is "essentially running non-stop 24/7." He said police have been working on detailed investigations over the past two weeks but it's still too soon to see results.

Despite the surge this year in gun violence, he said there's no reason for residents to worry.

"My message and the message from the organization is that we are living in a safe city," Staff Sgt. Bryden said. "We our having, obviously, our share of incidents that we would of course not want to experience, but these incidents are not random. They're targeted. We're going to experience our share of incidents like this given the size we are."

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