Policing the nation's capital

Peggy Staruch
June 08, 2016
By Peggy Staruch
Demonstrators amass outside the US embassy and CANSEC16 military trade show to protest a Canadian arms deal with Saudi Arabia. A gigantic sink hole opens at the corner of Rideau and Sussex Streets, just three blocks from Parliament Hill. Water gushes from a broken main and surrounding buildings are evacuated because of a reported gas leak. That may sound like a lot to deal with over a two week period but Ottawa Police Service (OPS) officers also participated in a province-wide drug bust, investigated two shootings (one fatal), and hunted an armed and dangerous fugitive. On any given day an OPS officer can interact with at least four different policing agencies working in and around the national capital. Policing Ottawa can be very complex. Events like the North American Leaders Summit, held in June, present unique demands to ensure the safety of foreign officials and area residents.

Demonstrators amass outside the US embassy and CANSEC16 military trade show to protest a Canadian arms deal with Saudi Arabia. A gigantic sink hole opens at the corner of Rideau and Sussex Streets, just three blocks from Parliament Hill. Water gushes from a broken main and surrounding buildings are evacuated because of a reported gas leak.

That may sound like a lot to deal with over a two week period but Ottawa Police Service (OPS) officers also participated in a province-wide drug bust, investigated two shootings (one fatal), and hunted an armed and dangerous fugitive.

On any given day an OPS officer can interact with at least four different policing agencies working in and around the national capital. Policing Ottawa can be very complex. Events like the North American Leaders Summit, held in June, present unique demands to ensure the safety of foreign officials and area residents.

Canada's 150th anniversary next year will present its own security challenges but there's plenty to do before then. The OPS will host the 111th annual CACP conference in August, with the topic of Public Safety in a Digital Age: Real Victims – Real Crime. Discussion will revolve around the growing significance of technology as an evolving threat to public safety. It's yet another avenue of crime that police agencies nation-wide now have to consider.

Policing is complex across Canada, as services deal with and adapt to changing environments. Policing Canada's capital is a feat all on its own.

A trusted partner in community safety

A 2014 StatsCan report ranked the OPS first in the country in public confidence. "Among the census metropolitan areas, residents of Ottawa were more likely to state their local police were doing a good job," concluded the Public Confidence in Canadian Institutions study.

While the OPS complement of 1,309 sworn and 634 civilian members is tasked with juggling multiple roles in a very high-profile environment, it also has to deal with shifting demographics and increasingly complex crime.

Chief Charles Bordeleau identified three key priorities: Road safety, guns and gangs and violence against women. These issues are not unique to Ottawa, but they resonate within the community and OPS membership.

Road safety

"Road safety is consistently at the top of the list of concerns for residents in Ottawa," said Bordeleau. "Key partners like Safer Roads Ottawa, MADD and Crime Prevention Ottawa have helped in communicating a message of road responsibility city-wide. We hope through education and awareness, we can make roads safer for all users in the city."

The campaign has made great strides in educating Ottawa-area drivers about the dangers of distracted driving. The program is the first of its kind to target younger students, engaging them as change ambassadors to influence friends and family to stop texting and driving. The program also engages in monthly traffic blitzes to raise awareness, working in cooperation with the RCMP, GPS and the OPP.

"Leave the Phone Alone recently won the Canadian Council of Motor Transportation Administrators for its 2016 Police Partnership Award. Our program is aimed at educating the public and initiating a cultural change in the perception of drivers that texting and driving is dangerous and illegal," said OPS Emergency Operations Directorate Supt. Scott Nystedt.

"Distracted driving is quickly taking over from impaired driving as the number one cause for road fatalities. It's an important message that needs to be shared."

Road safety is also encouraged through education and enforcement. Initiatives such as Safe Driving Week and Road Safety Week, along with RIDE and the Selected Traffic Enforcement Program (STEP), all contribute to safer driving practices and road sharing for all users.

Guns and gangs

Ottawa has recently seen gun-related incidents increase. While a rise in gang-related shootings may not be new for other cities, attitudes about gun use are changing.

"We are seeing a trend where young people, some of them gang members and some involved in only minor criminal activity, are turning to extreme violence to settle disputes that are often trivial in nature," said Bordeleau. "The solution to addressing and preventing this violence must include police, community groups, individual community members and the loved ones of those involved."

Ongoing collaboration with partners like Crime Prevention Ottawa, the Youth Services Bureau, OPS Youth Section and the Boys and Girls Club of Ottawa have helped shape the response to this issue. The service employs targeted, sustained and effective enforcement aimed at criminal gang activity such as drug trafficking, firearm possession, robberies, home invasions, human trafficking for the purpose of prostitution and, of course, murders.

"The discharge of firearms in our community presents a serious threat to public safety. We want to send a clear message to those who choose to arm themselves: 'You are a risk to public safety and we will proactively investigate you with the firm intent of removing you from our community'," said OPS Criminal Investigations Directorate Insp. Chris Renwick.

Violence against women

Perhaps the most progressive of the chief's mandates has been the OPS Violence Against Women initiative. Ongoing consultation with community frontline agencies has yielded many positive changes to the way officers assist victims of sexual assault and domestic abuse.

"Sexual assault or domestic violence cases are very complex," said OPS Criminal Investigations Directorate Insp. Joan McKenna. "There are issues that need to be examined, like providing the victim or survivor services in their own language, along with proper assessment of cultural sensitivities, and determining if there is enough evidence to lay a criminal charge."

The OPS has been proactive in encouraging community discussion to find solutions. It has hosted several town halls with frontline agencies and solicited feedback on how to offer better services for victims. This led to the creation of a new standard operating protocol for frontline officers.

"We recently started an intensive three-day course for frontline officers in order to help focus on the victim and provide a more informed initial response to sexual assault complaints," McKenna explained. "They learn about scene management, victim support workers and victim sensitivity. This will provide an in-depth understanding of the challenges involved with sexual assault cases and enhance frontline knowledge in our response to crimes of sexual violence."

May was Sexual Assault Awareness month and the OPS partnered with Bell Media and local community agencies to raise awareness about the issue. This collaborative effort included three public service announcements broadcast on all Bell Media networks. The media blitz included not only television and print coverage but a large social media push. The OPS hopes that increasing awareness will result in greater discussion about this issue, ultimately leading to community-driven solutions.

Taking a look back

The OPS had humble beginnings, starting in 1847 as the Bytown Association. The first chief constable, Roderick Ross, was appointed in 1855. Until 1866, officers were paid $1 for every culprit they brought in instead of an annual salary.

All municipal police services in the Ottawa Carleton Region were amalgamated in 1995 under Bill 143. The newly formed Ottawa-Carleton Regional Police Service had a staff of 830 sworn officers and 350 civilians and handled more than 270,000 calls in 1996. By way of comparison, the OPS handled 811,419 calls for service in 2015.

The Ottawa-Carleton region was amalgamated into the city of Ottawa in 2001 and the Ottawa Police Service was given its present name.

The future of policing

Keeping up with the shifting trends in crime, managing constrained budgets and still delivering the high level of service Ottawa residents have come to expect have been important issues for the OPS. The introduction of the Service Initiative (SI) in 2012 was a way to keep on top of these pressures while looking at effective and innovative ways to serve the community.

The SI Project Team, in consultation with members, works to enhance the OPS policing model, ensuring it is sustainable, focused on policing responsibilities and geared towards continuous improvement of service delivery.

"The service initiative is about sustainability for us as a police service," said Bordeleau. "We need to ensure we are focused on our policing responsibilities and continuously looking for ways to improve service and adapt to our changing landscape."

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