Police promises to immediately concentrate bicycle patrols in Herongate where nine bullets were fired in broad daylight less than two weeks ago are cold comfort to some residents worried they could become caught in the middle of what they say is increased gun violence in their community.
“I see it every day – crimes, the guns, drug dealers,” said Marie, who lives in Ottawa Community Housing in nearby Heatherington.
“I’m just scared. I want out,” said Marie, who withheld her last name for safety reasons. “I don’t feel safe. That’s why I came here – to get some answers.”
But police officials downplayed crime in the neighbourhood during a community safety meeting at the Heron Road Community Centre Thursday night (July 3) that was organized by Ottawa South MPP John Fraser.
Violent crime, property crime and drug trafficking have decreased by two per cent based on statistics compiled over the last three years, said acting Insp. Mark Patterson, who oversees the Ottawa Police intelligence, drugs and guns and gangs sections.
“We don’t have gang members that are going around randomly shooting at different locations and addresses,” he said. “We live in a safe city.”
But several residents, including Lucas Wozniak who lives close to where two males open fire on each other near Cedarwood Drive on June 17, said those statistics don’t align with what they are seeing day in and day out on their streets.
“Obviously, the fact that we’re having this kind of meeting is very indicative of a serious problem and of a growing problem,” said Wozniak, who has lived in Herongate for 10 years.
“This isn’t ‘all of a sudden we’ve got a problem here.’ This has been going on a long time.”
He hoped an action plan would be presented at the meeting. Instead, he said residents were given suggestions on who to call in different situations as well as services that can be accessed, information he says he can readily access online.
“Tell me what we’re doing, how’s the city reacting to this, what’s changing, why is this violence continuing. We didn’t hear any of that today,” said Wozniak.
Marie said while police appear to be doing what they can, the discussion at the meeting was “just window dressing.”
John Rogers also remains skeptical about police crime statistics that he said don’t reflect what residents are seeing and experiencing.
“In the last eight months there’s been six major crimes, four involving shootings,” said Rogers, who caught the June 17 shooting on his home security cameras. He has since turned over the footage to the police guns and gangs squad.
Residents immediately reacted by brainstorming ideas, such as the removal of shrubbery along a fence line in the neighbourhood, among other changes that could deter criminal activity.
“We’d like more lighting and we were hoping for cameras, but they say statistically it doesn’t make a difference,” said Rogers, who has lived in Herongate for eight years.
Still, his wife Janice Affleck, who regularly sees crimes, such as drug deals, committed near her home, said the meeting is a step in the right direction.
“I feel like the lines of communication have been opened,” she said following the meeting, which drew about 50 people, including residents, police and representatives from several community groups, including Crime Prevention Ottawa, South-East Ottawa Community Health Centre, youth outreach workers with the Boys and Girls Club of Ottawa and Somali organizations.
Herongate residents also learned at the meeting they may be approached this summer to take part in focus groups to identify concerns, possible solutions and existing services in an effort to help address safety in the community.
The project will be led by the South-East Ottawa Community Health Centre, and funded by a grant from Ottawa Crime Prevention. A plan is expected to be developed out of the initiative.
Herongate resident Cynthia Jolly said she too would welcome increased police patrols, but hoped police would identify places in her neighbourhood where gang members hang out, that residents can avoid.
“You don’t want to limit your life,” replied Nancy Worsfold, executive director of Crime Prevention Ottawa, a local municipal board that brings together organizations, such as the United Way, police and school boards, to promote safety.
But Jolly, whose garage became a safe haven for three residents during the recent shoot-out, said people already steer clear of certain spots.
“Without cameras and without knowing, we all naturally do because the (safety) mechanisms aren’t there yet,” Jolly said, and suggested a map detailing where each of the city’s 18 shootings have taken place this year would help.
“It’s nice to say ‘don’t alter your habits,’ but it’s a probability,” Jolly said. “If this is where it’s occurring, then we should be able to know where to safely avoid that.”
But while Patterson said gang members operate throughout the city, and are transient in nature, acting Staff Sgt. Ken Bryden, head of the guns and gangs unit, said there are two distinct “hard core” gangs in the city. Members or associates identify themselves as either the Bloods, which are known to operate in the west end of the city, or the Crips, a larger entity that does business in southeast Ottawa.
And while more criminals in the city are carrying guns, police are not seeing a spike in shootings in Ottawa this year compared to last year.
“We see a higher rate of shootings in the summer months and I’m sure everybody can appreciate there’s more gang activity within summer months because of more gang members that go out,” Patterson said.
One solution can be found in the example of Ledbury-Banff, a formerly troubled neighbourhood that is now “flourishing” compared to a few years ago thanks to a collective effort by police, social agencies and residents, said Patterson.
While police said officers regularly patrol Herongate, some frustrated residents said they have only seen uniformed officers there in recent weeks.
“When we talk about a good use of our resources you don’t see a fire truck driving around looking for fire, you don’t see an ambulance looking for sick people,” said Coun. Eli El-Chantiry, chair of the police services board, who attended the meeting on behalf of councillors Peter Hume, whose ward includes Herongate, and Diane Deans.
In response to concerns about the closure of the Herongate community police centre, El-Chantiry said these centres don’t make neighbourhoods safer.
The key to proactively improving safety in the neighbourhood is picking up the phone, he said.
Residents are urged to dial 911 for crimes in progress, and report suspicious activity to investigators so they can better focus their efforts.
“What we are looking for is your help. We need you to make the right call,” El-Chantiry said. “We can’t just go alone and be in every corner of the city.”