(originally published – Ottawa Citizen, February 6, 2018)
Ottawa’s politicians are once again facing pressures as a result of the startling escalation of gun-related violence in January.
Civic leaders, including Mayor Jim Watson, Police Services Board Chair Eli El-Chantiry, Chief Charles Bordeleau and others, have made an effort to present a united front against this violence.
With more show than substance, they rolled out the well-worn script of “police focus and community engagement.” Its purpose was to assuage Ottawa residents’ growing concerns about gun violence – but a photo-op contributes little to resolving the shooting crisis and neglects to address “big-picture” issues.
For the most part, the current strategy is the same Bordeleau rolled-out in 2014-15 when gun violence first emerged as a key safety issue (the number of shootings – that is, when a gun was fired, not just when someone was hit – increased from 32 in 2013 to 49 in 2014).
At that time Bordeleau was determined in his effort to defend current police resources as adequate: He would reassign officers to the guns and gangs unit, the specialists in violence of this type, only to quietly return them to their previous positions months later.
In early 2015, the chief announced plans to hire 75 officers. While the promise of additional resources had a tempering effect on city politics, the chief’s strategy would spread these hires out over four years, and the training time to follow would add another half-year before new recruits were effective police officers. The result is that staffing increases announced in January 2015 won’t be fully realized until mid-2019.
This may have been an effective political response, but the 75 officers would barely bring the Ottawa Police Service back to staffing levels in place in 2010.
The slow drip of new resources has done nothing to offset gun violence in Ottawa. The 32 shootings in 2013 now seem like few compared to the steady increase that has followed: 49 shootings in 2014; 46 in 2015; 68 shootings in 2016; and record high 74 shootings in 2017.
There were 13 incidents this January, which does not bode well for the rest of the year.
Despite these worrisome numbers, the chief continues to argue that he has sufficient resources. His position that “internal restructuring” will allow him to focus all members on these problems is abstract and would, at best, temporarily draw valuable resources from other police priorities. It is the ultimate human resources shell-game: tasking the same number of people to do more work.
In the end, the chief’s loyalty to El-Chantiry and Watson’s campaign of budget restraints has made Ottawa into one of the poorest staffed major police services in Canada.
In 2014 the Fraser Institute issued a report which estimated that Ottawa was short by 141 officers. A more recent Fraser Institute report observed that the Ottawa Police Service has become even smaller, concluding that between 2013 and 2016 the service decreased by almost nine per cent – a decrease in policing resources second only to Vancouver.
Recent public comments made by Ottawa police senior managers shine light on internal staffing debates. For example, despite the chief’s assurances of adequate resources, a senior manager in charge of personnel publicly commented that Ottawa needed 200 more officers. Some senior managers estimate the requirement is even higher.
In a possible glimpse into this fall’s mayoral election, Sen. Vern White (a former Ottawa police chief) recently urged the mayor to respond to the immediate staffing needs through a provincial funding, as has happened elsewhere. In a curious response, the mayor dismissed the urgency, claiming that if Ottawa made such a request, other municipalities would follow.
How this helps Ottawa residents is a mystery.
History repeats now that Bordeleau has committed to new officers, but again this will be done in stages into the future. This incremental approach will not deal with today’s crisis.
The chief does have an option to hire experienced officers right now. Ottawa has relied on “direct entries” in the past – with more than 300 current Ottawa police officers who trained elsewhere, and were hired by Ottawa.
The crisis in gun violence in Ottawa must be addressed now. We urge the chief to recruit and hire experienced officers who want to come to work in our city.
We also urge him to assign permanent resources to guns and gangs and DART. Public safety cannot be achieved incrementally.
Matt Skof is the President of the Ottawa Police Association.