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TEAMING UP TO COMBAT ILLEGAL GUNS


January 7, 2013
By Tony Palermo

by Tony Palermo

The 1994 shooting death of 23-year-old Georgina “Vivi” Leimonis during an armed robbery at an upscale Toronto coffee shop attracted national media attention. Nicknamed the “Just Desserts Shooting” after the cafe where the crime occurred, the shooting sparked a public outcry demanding change.

Soon after, the Ontario Provincial Police’s Provincial Weapons Enforcement Unit (OPP PWEU) was formed. As one of the longest standing joint force operations in Ontario, the investigative unit, led by the OPP, is assigned to combat illegal firearms trafficking in Ontario. Falling under the force’s umbrella Organized Crime Enforcement Bureau (OCEB), its intelligence and information sharing capabilities are extensive.

The PWEU includes members from several law enforcement agencies – Durham, Halton, Hamilton, London, Niagara, Ottawa, Peel, Windsor, York, the RCMP and Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) – and maintains solid partnerships with several other organizations, including the Criminal Intelligence Service Ontario (CISO), Criminal Intelligence Service Canada (CISC) and the RCMP’s Firearms Investigative Enforcement Services Directorate (FIESD), which also includes the National Weapons Enforcement Support Team (NWEST).

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“This is definitely an organization where you leave your flash at the door,” says Det. Cst. Chris O’Brien, an Ottawa Police Service officer tasked to the PWEU. “It’s a cooperative effort that works well and bridges the gap between the various services.”

{Intelligence-led, team-based policing}

The PWEU also has a special agent and legal attaché from the US Department of Justice’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) assigned to it to combat cross-border information sharing.

“Our partnerships enhance the production and exchange of information and promote an integrated, intelligence-led approach to law enforcement,” says Det. S/Sgt. Joe Goodwin, PWEU Operations Coordinator. “There are numerous examples of successful cross-border investigations that demonstrate the importance of these close and effective partnerships.”

Goodwin points to 2010’s Project Folkstone, a seven-month joint-force investigation involving members from the OPP, Toronto, Windsor, York, CBSA and ATF. It resulted in 22 arrests, some 250 criminal charges and led to the recovery of more than 15 illegal guns, a large quantity of drugs (including $400,000 of cocaine and $75,000 of marijuana), cash and other property obtained by crime.

“Using the intelligence-led policing approach, Project Folkstone centred on a criminal organization involved in a cross-border gun smuggling operation that specialized in the trafficking of illegal guns in the Greater Toronto Area,” says Goodwin. “In fact, they were smuggling both guns and drugs into Canada from the US.”

Goodwin estimates that approximately 55 to 60 per cent of the guns being illegal shipped into the country come from the US, the majority handguns.

In addition to identifying and taking enforcement action against people involved in the illegal movement of firearms, ammunition and explosives, the PWEU is also tasked with identifying and tracing crime guns and taking action against those in possession of them.

By definition, a crime gun is:

  • any firearm that is used, or has been used, in a criminal offence;
  • any firearm obtained, possessed or intended to be used in criminal activity;
  • any firearm with a removed or obliterated serial number(s);
  • any weapon that has been adapted for use as a firearm.

PWEU members are firearms experts and so called upon to perform a variety of functions, including helping other agencies with investigations, tracing, developing informants, training, verifying if a weapon really meets the legal definition of a firearm, providing expert testimony and restoring serial numbers.

“Grinding is probably the most simple to do and therefore, the most common way people try to remove the serial number,” says O’Brien. “Another popular one is using a drill press to drill out the number.”

O’Brien laughs when asked if a serial number that’s been drilled out can be restored.

“Trust me, you’d be surprised at what we can do,” he says. “I can’t tell you how, but we have a great success rate at recovering serial numbers, including on firearms where more advanced removal techniques have been attempted.”

{Long-gun registry: the loss of a good thing}

PWEU head Det. Insp. Patti Dobbin shakes her head when asked about the impact losing the long gun registry.

“(It) represented a valuable tool in assisting police in our efforts to prevent and solve crime and enhance public safety,” says Dobbin. “Certainly, the more information we have, the better.”

She cites several examples of how losing the registry is a step backwards. Tracking is one example. Increasingly, a firearm is a criminal’s preferred tool of choice to protect investments and interests and secure other assets. Handguns are currently tracked in both Canada and the US and lawful Canadian firearm owners must register them. These tracking mechanisms allow police to conduct thorough and successful investigations when handguns are involved.

Rifles and shotguns used in criminal activity do not have to be registered. As Dobbin says, without a record of ownership, there is no way to track its source.

“Without knowing the source of the non-restricted firearm used in a crime, the police cannot ensure public safety by determining who was responsible for allowing their lawfully-owned and registered firearm to fall into the hands of criminals in the same way police can with restricted and prohibited firearms.”

Dobbin also notes that certain criminal and dangerous activities can possibly be prevented by requiring non-restricted firearms to be registered. Domestic violence is a classic example, which she says develops over time and escalates when left unchecked. When police intervention occurs early, there is a greater chance victims will not be subject to violence, including shootings.

Currently, police have the authority to search for and seize firearms known to be in the possession of a person who commits domestic violence. Without the long-gun registry, they can now only rely on the accounts of the suspect, victims and witnesses in an investigation to determine if firearms are present.

Registry or not, one thing is for sure – its business as usual for the PWEU and its partner agencies – and for those involved in the illegal movement and use of firearms, that’s never a good thing.