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Rise in guns worries Durham police chief

Council told they should hire new officers sooner than later to avoid “catching up”

Durham Region Police Chief Paul Martin recently provided his annual update to council, noting crime levels are slightly up, but he is particularly concerned about the rising local presence of guns.

By Dave Flaherty/The Oshawa Express

Durham Police Chief Paul Martin says the recent trend of heightened criminal activity in the region continued in 2019.

Martin presented his annual update to regional council at its latest meeting.

He noted crime had been “trending downward” in the earlier half of the 2010s, but that began to change in 2015.

“It’s increasing gradually not just in Durham Region and Ontario, but across Canada,” the chief said.

Specifically, property crime in Durham was up 7.8 per cent last year, while reported violent crimes increased four per cent, and other Criminal Code offenses were up 16 per cent.

Martin said the latter was due to higher incidents of fraud and shoplifting, which tends to happen with more residents and businesses coming into the area.

On the other hand, Martin reported cases of assault with a weapon were down 14 per cent, while motor vehicle collisions involving injury were down nine per cent.

For Martin, the biggest concerns moving forward are a general increase in homicides and the presence of guns in local communities.

He said Durham Region historically sees between four to six murders per year, but there were nine in 2017, 12 in 2018, and seven last year.

“Obviously, no homicide is acceptable, but I hope that decrease continues,” he said.

Martin recalls a time when Durham police officers would rarely seize guns while on patrol, but now it’s happening with “great regularity.”

Throughout 2018 and 2019, regional police seized 161 firearms.

Overall, 67 guns were fired in Durham over the past two years, resulting in 24 injuries and eight people being killed.

The rise in gun violence is something other police departments across the GTA are experiencing as well, Martin adds.

Last fall, police officials requested $1.5 million for 20 new front-line officers in the DRPS’ draft 2020 budget.

However, council imposed a 3.2 per cent increase cap, forcing DRPS to shed $8 million from its 2020 budget requests, which potentially puts those new positions on the back-burner.

During his update, Martin said the longer the region puts off hiring more officers, “the more expensive it will be to catch up.”

While there are about 900 officers under contract with the DRPS, Martin said only between 650 to 700 are “fully employable.”

Several officers are currently off duty due to both physical injuries and mental health reasons.

The chief also explained more than 120 Durham officers are qualified to retire in 2020 alone.

Domestic abuse calls were up 27 per cent in 2019, and Martin said police are managing all this with fewer resources.

The Ford government recently announced $24 million in funding for Peel Regional Police to combat gun and gang violence.

Ajax councillor Sterling Lee asked Martin if Durham would be receiving a similar investment.

Martin said while he anticipates a future funding announcement, he doesn’t think Durham’s level of provincial funding will be much larger than in the past.

Lee also noted in his ward and other areas of the city, visible minorities sometimes have an “inherent” distrust of police because they are not represented within DRPS’ ranks.

Martin said increasing diversity across the department is an immediate priority for him and the police board.

Last year, the federal government declared it would let individual municipalities enforce handgun bans.

Clarington Mayor Adrian Foster asked Martin whether he approved of this “checkerboard approach.”

Martin said, for example, if Oshawa had a handgun ban and Whitby did not, it would create numerous issues.

“From a policing standpoint, it would be a nightmare to enforce,” he said. “It would make sense that it is an outward ban or not.”

Between June 2018 and June 2019, DRPS ran a body-worn camera pilot project.

Martin said the equipment has been returned, and no officers are currently wearing the cameras.

A student at Lakehead University is studying the results of the pilot project, and Martin said a full report and recommendations would be coming forward to the police board and senior management.

When it comes to the future of body-worn cameras in Durham, Martin said there is a “lot of considerations, not the least the cost.”

Oshawa Ward 2 city and regional councillor Tito-Dante Marimpeitri noted his disappointment with how DRPS will be losing its presence at the campus of Durham College soon.

Last fall, the college notified police officials of its desire to terminate a five-year lease for DRPS’ Police Learning and Innovation Centre, which originally ran through January 2022.

Marimpietri also noted the shooting death of an up-and-coming Toronto rapper named Bvlly on Christmas Eve, which took place in his ward.

He said it was shocking to the residents to see this type of gun violence in their neighbourhood.

Martin said as development in the north ends of urban municipalities continues, it will be important to review how to best serve those neighbourhoods in Oshawa and other areas.

The Ontario Civilian Police Commission (OCPC) is currently investigating serious allegations against both the Durham Regional Police Service and the police board.

An administrator has been appointed to take on some of Martin’s duties until the completion of the OCPC’s investigation.

However, Martin has challenged the need for the administrator in the Ontario Court of Appeal.

He made his case to three judges on Jan. 17. The judges have reserved a decision until a further date.

Some councillors made it known they’d like the chief to speak to them on a more regular basis.

Ajax councillor Marilyn Crawford said Martin’s presentation and follow up questions had taken up almost an hour-and-half of the meeting.

“It’s a prime reason why we should be having the chief of police coming every quarter,” she said.

She noted the police operations account for more than one-third of Durham’s entire budget so it’s important for councillors to always be on top of what is going on.

After Martin had left, Pickering councillor Kevin Ashe, who is chair of the Durham Police Services Board, said the chief doesn’t have an aversion to coming to more meetings.

However, Pickering councillor Bill McLean stated Martin is always readily available.

“I’m sure if you have any particular questions at any time… they would be answered,” McLean said.