Joint police effort sees $1.5 million in drugs, 13 guns seized in Thunder Bay over past six months
Thunder Bay police, OPP, NAPS, APS join forces on Project Disruption
A joint law enforcement effort launched six months ago to crack down on drugs and gang activity in Thunder Bay and Northwestern Ontario has so far led to the seizure of enough fentanyl to cause 500,000 fatal overdoses, police said Thursday.
Project Disruption is a joint effort by Thunder Bay police, OPP, Nishnawbe Aski Police Service (NAPS), and Anishinabek Police Service (APS).
In its first six months, the project has seen $1.5 million worth of illegal drugs and 13 guns seized, as well as $755,000 in cash.
Eighty confirmed or suspected gang members have also been arrested, and 431 charges laid. All of the seizures and arrests were made in Thunder Bay, police said.
The joint task force was created "in response to an unprecedented increase in drug trafficking and violence within our city," Thunder Bay police Chief Sylvie Hauth said at a Project Disruption media conference on Thursday morning.
"It was clear from the onset that Thunder Bay, and the region, had become a destination of choice for persons involved in [the] drug trade," she said. "This influx of criminal organizations associated with illicit drugs have brought guns, death, and suffering for our citizens, many of whom are vulnerable and struggling with addictions."
Orillia, Ont., based OPP Superintendent of Organized Crime Enforcement Bryan MacKillop said there are several southern Ontario gangs operating in Thunder Bay. The main three are known as the Galloway Boys, Ardwick Bloods, and Thorncliff Park Kings.
"Street gangs have evolved, and migrated into regional businesses, if you will," MacKillop said. "Calling them street gangs actually does them, and us, a disservice, causing many to underestimate their sophistication."
In an interview with CBC News after the media conference, MacKillop said the expansion of the gangs currently operating is "no different than, historically, any organized crime group, whether it's an outlaw motorcycle gang, or a traditional or Asian-based or Latin-based organized crime groups."
"As they saturate whatever community they're in, they want to expand and take advantage of other vulnerable markets," he said.
MacKillop said the gang issue is affecting communities across Ontario.
"We don't have domestic production of fentanyl, for example," he said. "But what we do have is organized crime groups that are able to take advantage of historic distribution networks, and bring those commodities or those products into communities, and it's basically killing people."
OPP recently charged three people with manslaughter over the 2018 death of a Mishkeegogamang First Nation resident, who died after ingesting illicit opioids made to look like Percocet pills.
"We also have the impacts of cyber-enabled criminals, that can establish themselves anywhere and have it imported from overseas, and brought directly into communities, which is proving challenging for us to deal with," MacKillop said.
Gang expansions can also lead to conflict with a particular community's existing criminal element, he said.
"What these gangs want to do is really take control of all that, and they want to exert their authority," MacKillop said. "That usually comes with violence."
"These are criminals," he said. "They see a market here, they see a supply and demand here, they want to expand here, and they don't want any competition. And usually, when you're dealing with criminals who are victimizing individuals, the only way to take advantage of that is to eliminate your competition, or push them out or move them."
"Rarely is that done through acquiescence. It's most-often done through violence."
The city is a target for these groups because it's a regional hub, MacKillop said, and allows access to other communities in the northwest.
Hauth said the issue is not an easily-solvable one, and the joint police effort will continue. She said police hope to get access to provincial gangs and guns funding.
"Obviously, the OPP has a bigger organization, a lot more resources, and it's nice that we can currently tap into those resources," she said. "For us, and smaller agencies, specifically NAPS and APS, it makes it a bit difficult."
"Our unit is not that big, so we cannot really do this type of work without having the assistance of other services."
People in affected communities can play an important role, too, MacKillop said.
"People need to take note that this is happening," he said. "This is not a situation where you can abdicate responsibility for you or your community's public safety to the police."
A 'new type of criminal'
"This is going to be a new type a criminal, a different type of criminal, a more-aggressive type of criminal, new drugs are coming in to the community," MacKillop said. "It pains me sometimes when we do operations in a community, and after we're done, we have the individuals who will commonly say 'oh, good, because they've been doing that for 10 years,' or 'you missed the person around the corner.'"
It's vital, MacKillop said, that people report suspicious or illegal things they see to the police.
"They might have that one last piece of information it takes us to solve a case, and they can't assume that we just know and we're not doing anything about it," he said. "It starts off with a complaint, and then it turns into this joint force effort that results in these 80 arrests and a lot of drugs and weapons ... being seized."