Ottawa police turn to public for help in curbing gun violence

A turf war between rival gangs is likely fuelling a rise in Ottawa shootings this year, police say. But without help from the public, police say investigating the incidents has proven difficult.

Ottawa police say they need public to 'step up' to curb gun violence

Ottawa police officers search the area after a shooting in Mechanicsville on Jan. 18, 2018. (CBC)

A turf war between rival gangs is likely fuelling a rise in Ottawa shootings this year, police say. But without help from the public, police say investigating the incidents has proven difficult.

"We know people out there who know these suspects," said Insp. Mark Patterson of the Ottawa police criminal investigations directorate.

"We also know there are victims out there who are not coming forward and providing us information," he said. "We're asking the public to do that — to step up."

Patterson said there have been 11 shootings so far this year, including Sunday's incident in Bells Corners, in which shots were fired from a moving vehicle and targeted the occupants of a second vehicle near Seyton Drive and Hammill Court.

All of the incidents remain under active investigation, but Patterson said police have a sense of what's fuelling the violence.

The shootings are consistent with a trend seen in cities across Ontario, including Toronto and Hamilton, Patterson said, with evidence gathered so far pointing to a small number of people, typically involved in drug trafficking and other criminal activity, who are using guns to settle turf wars or otherwise intimidate rival gang members.

"Because they're so brazen," Patterson said, "we're seeing more of these [shootings] occur than certainly they were last year at this time."

Unco-operative victims

Aside from the victim in Friday's Findlay Creek shooting, all others were known to Ottawa police, according to Patterson.

As such, they are often unwilling to share any information with investigators about potential suspects, preferring instead to take matters into their own hands.

"We want to get more proactive," said Patterson. "That means getting information through the public as to who these people are."

"We need the community's help to provide us information for us to act upon," he said, "because we're certainly not getting it from those victims."

Carrie Chen and Leiling Zheng say they might change their lunchtime walk route in Bells Corners after a shooting in the neighbourhood early Sunday morning. (Marc-André Cossette/CBC)

Communities shocked

People who live and work in Bells Corners say they're still in shock their community is dealing with gun violence.

Leiling Zheng works just a few minutes from the scene of Sunday's shooting on Seyton Drive. It's a spot she and her colleague often walk past during her lunch break.

"We're definitely going to reconsider whether we are going to continue doing our walk," she said. "Maybe we should [find] a new route."

More than anything, it's the frequency of shootings so far this year that Zheng finds concerning, adding she feels as though she hears reports of shots fired every day.

Bells Corners resident Gnanawathy Nagulendran says recent violence in the neighbourhood has her worried about her kids' safety. (Marc-André Cossette/CBC)

"Ottawa is supposed to be a very safe place," Zheng said. "I find that these [last] two years have been crazy. It's just unbelievable — very scary."

Gnanawathy Nagulendran has been living nearby on Hammill Court for five years.

"Before, it was a good area," she said, adding she's grown worried after the two recent shootings in her neighbourhood.

"We're a little concerned about the kids leaving alone outside, coming and going," she said of her two children. "It's a little bit scary."

Connecting with communities

Matt Skof, president of the Ottawa Police Association, said the rash of shootings points to a deeper problem with how Ottawa's police force is structured.

"This is an issue around how our community is interacting with the police," Skof said.

In 2017, Ottawa police shifted more than 100 officers from specialized units to front-line patrol duty.

Police brass said the restructuring would allow the force to focus on emergency response, but critics like Skof say is has distanced police officers from the communities they serve.

Officers' shifts are dominated by the 911 calls for service that come in, Skof said, leaving them no time to do the kind of proactive police work that might prevent shootings from happening in the first place.

Ottawa Police Association president Matt Skof says a recent restructuring of Ottawa's police force means officers are stuck reacting to shootings rather than preventing them. (CBC)

Patterson said he recognizes prevention efforts have a role to play in curbing gun violence in the city.

"We can't arrest our way out of this problem," he said.

With files from Judy Trinh