This article first appeared in the Winter 2014 issue of Ottawa Magazine.
Gun violence between rival gangs is casting a shadow over one neighbourhood in Ottawa’s south end. Judy Trinh looks at the allure of semi-automatic handguns and what police are doing to keep residents safe
From a distance, the two apartment towers on Cedarwood Drive appear to hold promise. Surrounded by green space, bike paths, and a play structure, a cacophony of voices — young and old, in a variety of languages — drifts out of the 15-storey towers. Yet on a warm Saturday afternoon, not a single child can be seen climbing the monkey bars. Perhaps they’re enjoying the swimming pool in the community recreation centre between the towers? Nope. There are no children — just broken lounge chairs, a ladder, and empty paint cans.
It was outside the pool that I ran into Daniel Mayville pushing his walker to the bus stop. He was in a rush to get his errands done before sundown. “Eight p.m., that’s when the trouble starts.” Mayville is on a disability pension. When he moved into the apartment building six years ago, he thought he had won the residential lottery. He got a spacious ground-floor apartment with a large bedroom and an enclosed porch. But within the first year, bullets flew through his bedroom window, and the same thing has happened three times since. Mayville no longer sleeps in his bedroom, preferring a mattress on the floor, away from the windows.
As of early September, there had been 30 shootings in Ottawa in 2014. Guns were found in only two of the incidents; one was in a green bin after a June shooting in the townhouse complex beside Mayville’s apartment. While neighbours took cover from stray bullets, the targeted man was shot in the forehead. Despite being hospitalized and requiring surgery, the shooting victim won’t tell police who fired the gun.
So far, no innocent bystander has been hit by a bullet in the city,
but there have been some frighteningly close calls.
That’s no surprise to detective Chris O’Brien, an Ottawa police officer who is now working with the Provincial Weapons Enforcement Unit. He says these shots are often fired by individuals who feel disrespected in some way, who lash out to “settle petty beefs.” “They live in the moment,” O’Brien says. “They don’t think about the consequences of their actions.”
So far, no innocent bystander has been hit by a bullet in the city, but there have been some frighteningly close calls. In 2011, as an officer with the Guns and Gangs Unit, O’Brien recovered a bullet that had come to rest on a pillow beside a sleeping seven-year-old girl after it pierced through the second-storey wall of a house in Barrhaven. The possibility of innocents being caught in the crossfire looms ever larger — O’Brien says a “mini arms race” is going on between various street-gang cliques who are fighting over their piece of the neighbourhood drug trade.
Between the two Cedarwood towers there are hundreds of potential eyewitnesses. Unfortunately, they are reluctant to come forward. Sometimes it’s a cultural or a language barrier that is to blame,
but it’s usually fear.
“The guy with the gun is the power broker. He can intimidate better, collect money better, and enforce better because he has that gun.” O’Brien says if dealers want to be competitive, they feel pressured to get a firearm — easy enough if you have the right connections and enough money. The average price of a semi-automatic handgun, the weapon of choice for gangsters, is between $1,500 and $3,000.
“Yeah, I could get one if I wanted one,” says Ahmed. The 17-year-old high school graduate is wise beyond his years. I meet him as he’s walking home from the bus stop. He’s wearing aviator sunglasses and a black Miami Heat cap with the silver authenticity sticker stuck on the brim. When I arch my eyebrows, he sits down next to me under a shade tree and expands on his street credentials.
In a soft voice, he tells me he can probably get a decent handgun for around $500 from connections gleaned over several years. When he was 13 years old, he became a “corner boy” for a Crips gang member (who was also a family member). During school, as he sat at his desk, Ahmed would get texts on his cellphone from his cousin, dispatching him to deliver packets of marijuana and crack cocaine to customers — and collect the payments. Ahmed’s reasons for entering the drug trade were simple.
“I wanted nice clothes. I wanted to be a provider.” Ahmed is from Djibouti, the eldest of seven children, all of whom were raised by a single mother in a two-bedroom apartment. When he was dealing, he would make as much as $300 a day. He would always slip $50 into his mother’s purse on paydays. She never asked him where the money had come from.
Ahmed has come close to being stabbed two times by rival drug dealers, but he didn’t quit the game until his cousin was arrested a year ago. I ask him what his plans are now that he has graduated. He tells me he’s looking for a job so he can save money for college.
“I want to be a businessman. I like suits.” He breaks into a smile. “You know, I’m smart.” I ask for a number to follow up, and he tells me to message him on the mobile app Kik. And with that, he brushes the grass off his white Airwalks and heads home to the towers.
Management has installed security cameras in the lobby and around the two buildings. Streetlights dot the perimeter. But residents say lights and cameras are often vandalized, the shards of glass littering the pavement. Even so, between the two Cedarwood towers there are hundreds of potential eyewitnesses. Unfortunately, they are reluctant to come forward. Sometimes it’s a cultural or a language barrier that is to blame, but it’s usually fear.
Of the dozen or so people on Cedar-wood Drive I spoke to that day, Daniel Mayville is the only one who gave me his full name and a phone number. “I’m giving you my name because people know I’m not going to rat.” His corner unit on the main floor gives him a front-row seat on crime. He has seen drug dealers plying their trade and addicts smoking crack just steps from his enclosed balcony. At night, he sees teenage girls sliding in and out of cars that pull into the parking lot. But he just draws the curtains — he won’t report it. That’s because Mayville is sure that at least two drug dealers live on the same floor, and there’s just too much risk in talking. And he told police as much the last time they knocked on his door after a shooting.
“I told them I respect the law, but even if I did know something, I wouldn’t tell them. They’re officers. They have guns. They can leave. I live here. I can’t run. Who will protect me?”
It’s a question many on Cedarwood Drive ask.
In March, Ottawa police closed the Herongate community policing station located in one of the towers because of a health hazard. There was a bug infestation. But station superintendent Ty Cameron says that “bricks and mortar aren’t the answer” to crime in that neighbourhood. Few residents were walking through the door of the community police station. “The police officer was like the Maytag repairman, just waiting for someone to come in.” Instead, Cameron wants to see officers out in the neighbourhood talking to residents, building relationships, developing trust, and gathering tips. Cameron says more officers now patrol the Herongate neighbourhood. They swing by in vehicles and ride the bike paths. Police know it’s a hot spot for crime, but it’s uncertain whether criminals feel the heat. Meanwhile, residents are just praying they don’t get caught in the crossfire.
Judy Trinh covers crime news for CBC on television and radio. She has been nominated for a Gemini and a National Magazine Award. Follow her on twitter