Ottawa police open new storefront office in downtown core amid concerns over crime and safety (2024)

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Ottawa police have opened up a new storefront in the city’s downtown core, minutes away from Parliament Hill, in response to persistent concerns about crime and safety in the area.

The neighbourhood operations centre is part of a strategy by the Ottawa Police Service, dubbed the Community Outreach Response and Engagement, to increase its presence in ByWard Market, the city’s retail and entertainment district. Staff began working out of the space, located in the CF Rideau Centre Mall, earlier this month, and it officially opened last week.

The police say they plan to use the centre to meet with front-line partners, including the city’s paramedic service, transit constables and other community members, as part of a wider scheme that also includes increased foot, bicycle and vehicle patrols.

In Ottawa, local businesses and others in the area have been complaining about an increase in crime and public disorder, which the police have linked to homeless shelters and harm reduction services in the area. But the organizers who run those services say the city won’t be able to address those problems without also tackling the underlying housing crisis that has left so many on the street.

“I think it’s widely recognized that we have a community safety issue in the downtown area,” Acting Sergeant Paul Stam said in an interview.

“That’s being driven by high levels of folks who are experiencing homelessness and experiencing problematic substance use, mental-health issues in the community.”

Police statistics for the city’s Ward 12, which includes ByWard Market, show that reports of property crime increased by 14 per cent in 2023 compared with a year earlier, while violent crime increased by 1.7 per cent, though it remains slightly below prepandemic levels.

The police service said it received about 1,100 high-priority calls last year, nearly four times higher than in 2022 and 20-per-cent higher than in 2019.

The city is also working to bring people back to downtown Ottawa, which remains less active than before the pandemic, as workers at many businesses and federal agencies continue to work from home at least some of the time. Some experts suggest concerns about public safety have made efforts to return to in-person work more difficult.

Sgt. Stam – who is tasked with implementing the police strategy – said what is happening in the ByWard Market is not unlike the rise in urban disorder seen in other major cities across the country. But he said Ottawa’s situation is unique because of the concentration of homeless shelters and other services, such as supervised drug-use sites in the area.

Three of the city’s four supervised consumption sites are located within walking distance in the downtown core, he noted: “Everything is concentrated, and it’s also concentrated in our economic hub.”

The first-year cost of leasing the space for the police’s neighbourhood operations centre, including operating costs, is more than $245,000.

Crime in the ByWard Market and the surrounding Lowertown neighbourhood has been a longtime concern for residents. Data included in a recent presentation to the police board showed that average crime severity in the ward is three-and-a-half times higher than the city average over the past seven years, and that residents in the ward feel less safe compared with the rest of Ottawa.

Additionally, the Department of National Defence recently said it planned to move about 1,000 employees out of an office building in the Lowertown neighbourhood last month, citing safety concerns raised by its employees at the location.

One of the supervised drug-use sites cited by the police department is The Trailer, which is operated by Ottawa Inner City Health and Shepherds of Good Hope – two social-service organizations that work with people experiencing homelessness.

Stephen Bartolo, the latter’s chief executive officer, said he supports the police department’s community-based approach in the area but that more non-market housing is ultimately needed to help people experiencing homelessness.

Mr. Bartolo said he’s aware of the concentration of homelessness services in the downtown core, which is why Shepherds of Good Hope has been working on building new supportive housing programs in other parts of the city.

“The more we prioritize building supportive housing and affordable housing and rent-geared-to-income housing, we’re going to have less concentration of services in our downtown core,” he said.

Rob Boyd, the chief executive officer of Ottawa Inner City Health, agreed that police have a role in addressing residents’ concerns in the area but that they alone won’t be able to solve the drug crisis that is at the heart of the issue.

“We’re really trying, collectively with the community and with police, to figure out what is that balanced response and how is it that we actually restore some of the order that existed prior to COVID-19 and then prior to the toxic drug supply taking over here in Ottawa,” he said.

Ottawa Mayor Mark Sutcliffe said he’s excited to see the police’s new centre open, though he acknowledged it’s not the only measure the city needs to take to address some of the challenges in the area.

The Canadian Urban Institute prepared a recent report calling for new strategies to help revitalize downtown Ottawa. One component of its recommendations is safety as well as to address homelessness, addiction and mental health concerns.

Jennifer Barrett, managing director of the institute, a non-profit research organization, said what Ottawa police is doing is comparable with what has been done in other urban centres. One example is the navigation and support centre that opened in downtown Edmonton in January, which works to connect people living in homeless encampments in the city’s core to crucial services.

Several organizations representing residents and businesses in the area, such as the Lowertown Community Association, have voiced their support for the police’s new program and operations centre.

The executive director of the ByWard Market District Authority, Zachary Dayler, said that having an increased police presence can help revitalize the market and make it inclusive for everyone involved.

“We have a really challenging role of balancing the community interest, the business interest, the cultural community interests because it all comes back to public markets. And public markets need to be for everyone,” he said.

Ottawa police open new storefront office in downtown core amid concerns over crime and safety (2024)

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