Shootings vs. shots fired: why we need to know the difference

In just about every other large city in Canada, the definition of shooting in the eyes of police — and media — is when a person has been hit by a bullet. Why don't police and media organizations in Ottawa make the differentiation most of the time?

Police say it's a record year for shootings, but with unclear stats we don't know if that's really the case

Police respond to a shooting in the ByWard Market. (CBC News)

It makes for a compelling and disturbing headline: Ottawa's 54th shooting of 2016 sends man to hospital.

According to police, this is a record number of shootings in the city. Taken literally, one would assume — not without reason — that 55 people have been shot so far this year.

But the actual number, according to Ottawa police data, is quite lower: a total of 29 people have been shot in the city this year, 10 of them fatally.

In just about every other large city in Canada, the definition of a shooting in the eyes of police — and media — is when a person has been hit by a bullet (intended target or otherwise).

Why isn't this the case in Ottawa? Why don't police differentiate between shootings with injuries and mere shots fired? And why, as media organizations, have we not made the differentiation most of the time? 

It's problematic, and here's why.

First of all, it's confusing. According to University of Ottawa criminal law professor Emilie Taman, inflated numbers also magnify the danger to the public while not giving an accurate accounting of each incident.

"Obviously, the police are doing their job when they're keeping an eye on what's going on in the city and looking to adjust their own operations accordingly. But I do think we have to be really careful about attempting to identify trends from very small sample sizes in terms of crime statistics," Taman said. 

"I would hope they would be doing their best to ensure that it accurately reflects the degree of danger that can be extrapolated from that data." 

Statistics can enlighten or deceive

For example, of the 26 shootings that resulted in no injuries this year, how many of them involved a restricted hand gun? How many involved pellet guns? We don't know.

Of the 55 reported shootings, how many guns were aimed at cement walls rather than human targets? Again, we don't know.

Also, this year has so far seen 55 supposed shootings with 19 injured and 10 killed, but what if there was a year that had 45 shootings with 30 injuries and 15 people killed? Wouldn't that be the more accurate record year for shootings?

We'll probably never know if 2016 will in fact be worst for actual shootings (not without a lot of number crunching the general public doesn't have time for) because Ottawa police say they only started differentiating between shots fired and actual shootings in 2014.

In a city where some of us feel relatively safe from gun crimes, and others not so much — usually depending on what neighbourhood we live in — these stats can have a double edge, Taman said.

"There's a lot of conflict, I think, and increasing distrust in police in Ottawa because of a number of recent events in Ottawa. I don't want to be cynical but I do think that when police are having those kinds of issues with public confidence sometimes tools that attempt to demonstrate that there's an increased crime problem can be used by the police as leverage to attempt to justify increased exercises in their powers and/or seeking to access greater resources for policing."

To be clear, Ottawa police don't offer up these numbers to media without being asked. Reporters seek out the numbers, and often keep their own tally, and police supply the information. So, to suggest it's an orchestrated public relations campaign to garner support from a segment of the public would be a stretch.

Statistics should be indisputable

For Ottawa police Chief Charles Bordeleau it's a tightrope walk: over-emphasizing the shooting stats to the mayor and council could result in more officers and a bigger chunk of the budget — and the force did add two dozen or so officers recently.

But it can also undermine public confidence in police. Say, for the sake of argument, one saw this as a cynical distraction technique. It too, pardon the pun, could backfire.

Ottawa police chief Charles Bordeleau has to balance need for more police resources with need to maintain public's confidence. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

"Clearly, the Ottawa police isn't having a fantastic year public-relations wise," Taman said.

"And even over the past couple of years, with the street-check policy and, I think, just rising tensions between certain communities in this city and the police, I don't think that increasing tensions by escalating fear is necessarily the best approach at working towards reconciliation and just better relations in general."

One would assume that crime statistics, at the very least, should give us a better indication of how safe our city really is. When it comes to shooting statistics specifically, a politically fraught topic at the best of times, they should be indisputable. In other words, there shouldn't be room for interpretation.

So, for the sake of accuracy, as well as our collective sense of safety, it's time for police and media in Ottawa to differentiate between actual shootings and random firearm discharges.

It used to be that close only counted for hand grenades and horse shoes. It shouldn't count for shootings, too.