By Lori Thompson
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
As the sprawl of street gangs continues to migrate outwards from the Greater Toronto Area, with often tragic consequences (as has occurred on Manitoulin Island recently), law enforcement agencies have united to enhance their capacity to implement a Guns and Gangs Enforcement Strategy across Ontario.
Last fall the Ontario government announced a $75.1 million investment to reinforce the fight against gun and gang violence in communities across the province. The funding was to “support initiatives that will dismantle criminal activity, enhance investigative supports, increase collaboration throughout the justice sector and stop the flow of illegal guns across the border.”
Earlier this month, the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) announced the launch of an OPP-led Guns and Gangs Joint-Forces Operation (JFO). The JFO enables law enforcement partners to enhance public safety and effectively disrupt gang networks and their associated criminal activities.
Criminal activities perpetrated by gangs, and the ensuing violence and victimization, continue to impact Ontario communities, both urban and rural. Gang-related crimes are on the rise, as is the presence and use of illegal firearms to commit serious offences causing injury and death to participants and innocent bystanders.
During 2021, the OPP alone seized 879 firearms from the communities it serves.
Illicit drugs continue to be the primary method by which gangs generate profit by dominating street-level sales. In an effort to maintain public safety and have an impact on public health, the OPP is aggressively investigating drug trafficking and any resulting deaths, focusing on the trafficker.
“These enhancements better position the OPP, our law enforcement partners and justice sector agencies across Ontario to reduce the harms caused by guns and gangs in our communities,” stated OPP Commissioner Thomas Carrique. “We will work relentlessly as one team to protect the safety and security of our citizens and visitors. The criminals are on notice: gangs, guns and all of the illegal activities that follow them are not welcome in our communities.”
“We’re beginning,” said OPP Detective Inspector Lee Fulford, who is coordinating the enforcement efforts. “I have operational teams now. It takes a while for us to get the partnerships in place and to get all the equipment and everything that’s required to start a new unit. That’s why the announcement was this many months after the funding announcement.”
While there is already an organized crime enforcement bureau (OCEB) in the Northeast region, in Sudbury and North Bay, this initiative is separate from that, Detective Inspector Fulford said.
“Our regular organized crime unit will still be supporting all the communities as well as my new provincial unit, which is a result of the government funding,” he explained.
“For example, we did do that investigation that was in partnership with the two First Nation police services (UCCM Anishinaabe Police Service and Wikwemikong Tribal Police Service) as well as the Manitoulin OPP detachment and our OCEB unit,” said Detective Inspector Fulford. “This team essentially will be supporting the street gang enforcement for the entire province. When the communities are in need, that’s what our team will be here for, to work in partnership and collaboration with what communities require our assistance.”
There is a joint analytical working group (JAWG) that will be responsible for intelligence gathering for the province in relation to street activity and organized crime. “Essentially what will happen is, a community like Manitoulin will be putting the intelligence forward. It would come to us and if there’s a public safety need or there’s a big problem in the community, that’s when I would be coming in (unless I get a specific request),” Detective Inspector Fulford said.
“Our OCEB is already doing a lot of good work up there within the communities,” he added. “This team will supplement the work that’s already being done and will offer further support.”
Grant McNair is acting staff sergeant and coordinator of the Provincial Street Gang Strategy JAWG. “Lee Fulford is coordinating the portion of this initiative focused on enforcement. He has teams that will investigate various issues. He has analysts as well, but my unit is solely focused on analytics. My team is all analysts,” he said.
The joint forces unit has 10 funded analyst positions in the JAWG, from the OPP and various policing partners across the province, with the hub located in Mississauga. There are three OPP analysts, one from Toronto Police Service, one each from Peel and York regions as well as one analyst from Waterloo representing the west, one from Sudbury representing the Northeast region, one from Thunder Bay and one from Ottawa. “These are part of the unit, but we will be partnering as much as possible with all policing services, including Indigenous, municipal and the Canada Border Services Agency,” Acting Staff Sergeant McNair said.
The JAWG will receive information from everywhere in order to paint a picture of what’s going on across the province, he said.
“For example, if someone who’s known to be a Toronto gang member is stopped in London and then later stopped in Sault Ste. Marie with a known gang operator from Ottawa, we can start to make connections by receiving information from our policing partners across the province.”
“Our unit will be a receptacle for information from across the province,” continued Acting Staff Sergeant McNair. “My unit will be combing through the information, identifying trends that are arising anywhere and feeding that information to the management team,” who will decide where the enforcement team should prioritize their efforts.
The JFO will allow an overview of the province from one end to the other, and will increase the understanding of the sprawl of different street gangs, which for the most part have previously been Toronto-centric but have been sprawling outwards from there.
The province has invested in this JFO as a means of looking beyond Toronto, to the sprawl of guns and street gangs all over the province, Acting Staff Sergeant McNair said. “All areas of the province have been experiencing this now. There has been a heavy migration to other areas of the province, especially to the North, as I’m sure you have experienced.”
There have been other joint-forces operations in the past, the OPP-led Provincial Anti-Terrorism Section being a notable example.
“This is definitely a significant enhancement to the street gangs and guns initiatives across the province,” he said.
The $75.1 million funding for this Guns and Gangs JFO covers a three-year term. Still, for every project taken down, there is more than one group waiting to fill the vacuum. “I don’t see (this JFO) as a short-term initiative,” said Acting Staff Sergeant McNair. “I definitely see this as a long-term project.”
Lori Thompson is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter who works out of
THE MANITOULIN EXPOSITOR. The LJI program is federally funded. Turtle Island News does not receive LJI funding.