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On foot or paper

A look at reducing violence in Oshawa's heart

By Joel Wittnebel/The Oshawa Express

A new year is supposed to be reserved for new beginnings, for change, for feelings of hope, but on Oshawa streets, a shocking wave of violence has left many residents feeling nothing but stunned.

Murders, shootings, stabbings, in Oshawa, the first two months of 2017 has seen it all, and they’re not alone. A similar trend of violent incidents can be seen across Durham Region. However, in the region’s most populous city, the more violent incidents are originating in what is meant to be the heart of commerce for the city.

The downtown just increased the size of it’s Business Improvement Area (BIA) to create a more welcoming environment for current businesses and to perhaps attract new ones to the many vacant store fronts.  New apartment buildings on Bond, the lingering rejuvenation of the Genosha Hotel and the impending redevelopment of the Fittings Property, all suggest good things. In that vein, it’s all going according to plan, that is Oshawa’s Plan 20Twenty for the downtown.

Meanwhile, on the street, violence continues to blight the area that is meant to be a spot of vibrancy, community and commerce.

And on the fringes of this new BIA boundary, an area that is meant to be the gateway to the downtown, a pair of shootings has left one 18-year-old dead, and another laying shot in the street.

Is it time for a new plan to address these issues, a plan that might lift some of these known hot-spots for crime from the depths of despair? Is it the responsibility of Oshawa’s council, or is it strictly the role of the police?

It’s these questions The Oshawa Express have taken to city hall and the Durham Region police to try and find an answer to what has been one of the bloodiest starts to a new year in recent memory.

 

The Jan. 3 surveillance footage shows a grainy view of Simcoe Street South, the road slick with rain.

A man runs in from the left side of the frame, he’s being chased by another man, who appears to be lifting something over his head. Then the beating starts. Police would later release that the weapon was a metal pipe. A woman appears at the bottom of the frame as the beating ends, she kneels at the edge of the road, appearing to pick something up. The assailant spots her, steps over and delivers a kick that sends her sprawling back. He then disappears.

The man is laying motionless. A foot to his right, traffic passes by, several cars speeding by either not seeing the man, or choosing not to.

 

When police arrived, the man would be rushed to hospital with a serious head injury, the only thing he could recall of the attack was being struck on the head with a metal pipe. After nearly a month of investigating, police would arrest a 37-year-old suspect.

The brutal attack was only two days after a man was beaten and stabbed only a short distance away out front of the Tim Horton’s on Athol Street. A 29-year-old would later be arrested after a brief fight with police. The same day a 19-year-old was stabbed while waiting for a cab in Ajax.

The year was just beginning.

Five days later a 21-year-old would stumble into the downtown Oshawa DRPS Central East Division with stab wounds. He would manage to tell police that he’d been stabbed in a nearby building before being rushed to a Toronto trauma centre where he would later succumb to his injuries. That young man was Dominik Prusinski, the region’s first homicide victim of 2017.

“It’s hard to say at this point whether there’s an increase in crime per say,” says Cst. George Tudos with the DRPS. “It fluctuates throughout the year.”

With that said, Tudos says the city, and the region, has seen more “high priority calls” for the start of the year.

 

A month to the day that police had a dying man walking into their downtown detachment, shots rang out on the fringes of the downtown core.

The Quebec Street apartments, a trio of aging buildings with stained brick and chipped paint, are a frequent spot for police. When they arrive this time, a young man lays in the hallway with a gunshot wound. The area is taped off, the victim is rushed to hospital and for hours, the area is searched.

Residents of the area hover on the outskirts of the yellow tape trying to gleam any details of what happened. They tell The Express the buildings are not known for many good things. Drugs. Prostitution. Violence.

The young man in the hallway, 18-year-old Darius Thorne, would later die in hospital.

And it wouldn’t end there. Less than a week later, in the shadow of the Quebec Street apartments, shots would ring out again, this time leaving a male bleeding on the street with a wound to his upper leg. Despite his injuries, he wouldn’t cooperate with police. The search for witnesses continues.

 

On paper

 

For council, the issue is a complicated one, and while the awareness is there, there is a wariness toward committing to any concrete plan.

“I can tell you that it was the topic of conversation here at the city, that we recognize the challenge and we’re working together as a team to make sure that we bring all of our resources to play,” says Mayor John Henry. “It’s time that we work together, this is a community where it’s not going to be tolerated, where the minimum standard is no longer okay.”

However, the mayor is hesitant to say a new plan is needed,  noting that a lot of the violence stems from issues that are much deeper rooted in some cases, pointing to certain “challenges” that can leave people in dire situations. “All parts of the city are aware of the problems on the street and we’re being very proactive, but I can’t tell you the game plan,” he says.

The city’s current guiding plan for the downtown core, named under the moniker of Plan 20Twenty, was established in 2014 and lays out the process for revitalizing the downtown core through business and residential growth, increased communication and advocacy and improving the look and feel through better greenery, lighting, banners and public art.

There is no mention of crime or the more deep-rooted social issues that plague the downtown area in the plan, despite the fact that a few years earlier, a Region of Durham report identified the Oshawa downtown area as one of its priority neighborhoods. The Durham Region Health Neighborhoods study has since found the downtown area has the highest rate of teen pregnancy, obesity, Hep. C, and the lowest life expectancy in males.

For Mayor Henry, it comes down to bringing more people into the area.

“If you want to change your downtown and make it more vibrant you have to bring more people down and when you bring more people down, you move some of the other issues that have happened, out of your downtown,” he says.

For Councillor Bob Chapman, who has seen the problem from both sides as a former member of the DRPS, the issue is a complicated one, especially to try and plan for from a council perspective.

“It’s a real hard one, even for police to solve or council to solve,” he says, noting that there are many different factors that can lead to the type of violence the city is seeing, whether it’s drug, gang or mental health related.

“What council can do is point people in the right direction,” he says.

 

On foot

 

For the police, the numbers currently don’t support bringing in more resources, though Tudos says that will happen should the need arise, but now it’s about increasing the police presence and shifting the focus.

Since the incidents on Quebec Street, Tudos says that police have redirected resources to the area, which is a common tactic following such violent crimes. This means a heavier police presence along with more direct interaction with the community through things like foot patrols, something Tudos views as being “very effective” in letting residents and business owners know that police are aware of the problem and are working to alleviate the issue.

“It gives them a sense of relief,” he says, noting that foot patrols are a more effective way to openly engage with people on the street and reduce or deter crime.

“I know a lot of times people are kind of hesitant to approach a police officer in a police car because they say maybe he’s doing his work or he’s too busy, but when officers are on foot, I believe, and also in my experience, they are more approachable.”

And while the DRPS is not increasing the amount of these types of patrols in the city as a whole, more will take place in these problem areas.

“We allocate the resources depending on what’s taking place,” Tudos says. “We’ll focus more on the problem or identified problem areas.”