Shootings in Calgary this year are at numbers the city hasn’t seen since 2015.
The city’s gang violence problem was more pronounced seven years ago. Now, city police are seeing different gang dynamics and different trends in gun acquisition — but the job left to police remains the same.
Calgary has seen 124 shootings in 2022, around 30 per cent more than last year’s shootings and more than 70 per cent above the five-year average.
From the beginning of the year up until Dec. 22, Calgary recorded 14 shooting deaths and 42 shooting-related injuries.
The first shots were fired on the afternoon of Jan. 6 in Sunalta and every quadrant of the city has been touched by gunfire since.
“One of these is one too many,” Calgary Police Service chief Mark Neufeld told Global News.
The police chief says despite violence reaching 2015 levels when there was “relatively open gang violence” in Calgary, that’s not driving shootings in 2022.
A disproportionate number of the gunfire is linked to a small number of criminals.
“We have over 1,000 prolific offenders that are out in our community that are prone to violence. That is a lot of people that we have to monitor,” Supt. Cliff O’Brien said.
In the case of shootings, O’Brien said prolific offenders can be characterized as people who are arrested for a violent crime or having a gun, are released a short while later on court-ordered conditions, only to be arrested again with another gun.
“When we see those types of people, we know that they’re probably not going to suddenly change on their own and they need some extra attention from the police,” the community policing superintendent said.
One type of “extra attention” they get are what police call directed patrols: when officers from the violent crime suppression team go to the home of those released on court orders.
In other words: an unexpected house call from police.
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“We will see people not abiding by (court-imposed conditions) and we’ll see all kinds of excuses why they’re not,” Insp. Jodi Gash said.
“We put them back before the courts and cross our fingers that they get held, because that’s the only time that we actually can rest assured that person’s not going to shoot someone.”
Court-ordered conditions can include prohibitions on having firearms or other weapons, curfews, travel restrictions and forbidding association with certain individuals.
But there’s an opportunity cost for the directed patrols. When officers are checking in on previous offenders, those officers are unable to do other policing.
And because police are unable to be in all places at all times, they’re asking for increased assistance from Calgarians in light of the rise in gun violence.
“Without the community, we actually can’t solve the crimes that we want to be solving,” said Gash, who works in the organized crime and offender management section.
O’Brien said video evidence from security cameras or dashcams is invaluable.
“We need witnesses. We need people to come forward and tell us what they saw,” he said.
Part of that community help can include family members providing police with information about suspicious activity or items they see in the home.
“I can appreciate that people are going to find it difficult to call in if there’s something suspicious with their children,” Gash said. “People find it difficult if they fear retribution… from an opposing group or are just afraid to call.
“But to me, that’s not an excuse. We have ways people can offer that anonymously – Crime Stoppers is an incredible resource that anybody can call into.”
Information from everyday Calgarians can be invaluable in stopping shootings, too, O’Brien said.
“They have been stopped because somebody has phoned us early and we’ve been able to respond and deal with those suspicious individuals. And there was no doubt of that, thanks to the community support and giving us that information that we stopped a shooting, potentially a murder,” he said.
CPS members were able to rapidly respond to one such tip recently.
“As recently as November, we had a situation where (a member of the) community assisted us with some knowledge that was in the community about a shooting that was going to take place,” Gash said.
“Arrests are made in busy nice restaurants where families are out, there’s children in the restaurant, both people are arrested with firearms on their person after a brief foot chase. Both offenders were on court-ordered conditions, one of which was in possession of three firearms only two months prior.”
New methods for organized crime
Police have linked one-quarter of the shootings to organized crime — but what that looks like is slightly different than before.
“If we go back to 2015-ish, we would see crime groups that were in conflict with each other and they were fairly well-defined — smaller numbers of people with more of a hierarchy in these groups — and we’re not seeing that anymore,” Gash said.
“We’re seeing very fluid groups where we’re seeing conflict that happens between groups and then also within groups when there’s conflict within them.”
Kelly Sundberg, a criminologist professor at Mount Royal University, recently attended the annual American Society of Criminology conference in Atlanta, Georgia, where the changing nature of organized crime was a “major topic.”
“There is a growing body of research and a lot of criminologists that are looking at how COVID and the social isolation and the social restrictions that occurred around the world as a result of COVID have changed organized crime activity as well — especially localized organized crime activity — among younger men,” Sundberg told Global News, noting the pandemic’s impact on the sociology of crime.
“This isn’t unique to Calgary. This is a global issue.”
Gash noted a “fairly consistent” upward trend in shootings connected to organized crime, a trend seen by other police services such as in B.C.’s Lower Mainland, Toronto and other parts of Ontario.
People involved in organized crime often travel around the country, “always looking for opportunistic ways to take over different drug territories.”
But the organized crime inspector said the motivations for the shootings remain largely the same: financial greed around selling and distributing illegal drugs supersedes any previous allegiances. There’s also more internal conflict.
“We see fighting between people where they would be aligned before.”
People involved with organized crime are stepping up their strategies and technology, as well. Police are coming across GPS jammers and the hidden compartments inside vehicles.
There’s also evidence the planning of shootings is increasing in sophistication, to evade police and to not let their targets’ allies know who was responsible.
“Although they may be targeting a specific individual, (shootings are) happening in busy streets, they’re happening in intersections, they’re happening at restaurants — it’s in the community where we have unsuspecting people who are with families that can get caught in the crossfire,” Gash said.
Tracing guns to their source
The other 75 per cent of shootings in the city aren’t random, the police chief said, but were “things like domestic violence or road rage, or lower-level conflict within the drug community.”
“It’s harder to find trends — whether it be geography or time or individuals involved — and so it’s a hard one because we’d always like to think we could get out in front of some of those things and prevent them,” Neufeld said.
To Dec. 1, CPS has seized 1,867 firearms, with 475 of them being crime guns. More than 1,500 charges have been laid by police from those crime gun incidents, O’Brien said.
One trend that is clear to police is where more guns used by criminals are coming from: smuggling and 3D printing.
“Two or three years ago, we didn’t have a huge 3D printing problem as far as the guns we were seizing. We seized one in 2021, but we kept hearing pieces of information, and so we started looking at it,” said A/Staff Sgt. Ben Lawson, part of the CPS firearms investigative unit.
“Now as of this year, we probably have seized almost 20 types of 3D printed firearms in our city alone.”
In August, police laid 66 charges against two men believed to have run a firearms production and trafficking operation using 3D printed firearms and parts in the city.
“‘Privately manufactured firearms’ is more what we first refer to them as,” Lawson noted.
All crime guns — guns used in crime, possessed illegally or unlawfully stored — are examined and investigated by Lawson’s team. They are inspected, fired, documented and traced back to the manufacturer.
“We wouldn’t be able to understand some of these trends and issues if we didn’t look at every single firearm and keep track of those, year over year,” the firearms unit staff sergeant said, noting the unit has completed just over 350 firearms investigations.
Between Jan. 1 and Sep. 30, CPS identified the origins of 52 per cent of seized guns: 16 per cent were smuggled, 11 per cent were from break-and-enters, eight per cent were homemade/3D printed, seven per cent were lawfully-owned, seven per cent were trafficked and three per cent were stolen.
The firearms investigative unit was formalized earlier this year after the CPS started looking more closely at seized guns three years ago.
Lawson said straw buyers — someone who is legally allowed to buy a gun, but usually sells it to an illegitimate purchaser later — are trending down.
A large portion of crime guns CPS have seized were traced back to thefts from break-ins or stolen from vehicles.
“Hunting season is a good example — out in the rural areas — where vehicles are targeted in the rural areas at those times a year,” he said.
But smuggling guns from the United States is trending up.
“Smuggling is not new to parts of Canada, but it is a bit of a regional thing where you see ebbs and flows based on the region and what they have,” Lawson said.
Areas previously popular for gun smuggling were around large population centres like the Greater Toronto Area or the Lower Mainland of Vancouver, Sundberg said.
“We didn’t have that problem two or three years ago to the same degree, and now we’re starting to see (smuggling) rise,” Lawson said.
“So now we need to understand how we can target those offenders and seize those firearms before they get into their hands or are used in shootings.”
Resourcing the justice system needed
Both O’Brien and Sundberg said Canada has good gun laws. But the laws are only as good as their enforcement.
“We have some very, very clear laws around the illegal use of a gun, the victimization, using a gun, shooting people, murder,” O’Brien said.
“What we need is to make sure our entire (justice) system is resourced appropriately, so that if somebody is charged and convicted, there are consequences to those actions.”
He highlighted the need for having enough staff in the courts — including prosecutors, defenders, justices and others — to handle the arrests by police.
Sundberg also says the border needs to be bolstered in order to stem the flow of guns, adding Canada and Mexico are in unique situations.
“We live next to the largest, most-armed people on the planet and guns are readily available. It’s their right to bear arms down there. And we’re going to see more of those guns flowing up here.”
In a recent interview with The West Block, Federal Minister of Public Safety Marco Mendicino reiterated part of Bill C-21’s purpose is to address smuggling.
That bill also enacted a ban on importing handguns and prohibitions on more powerful firearms.
“This is part of a broader plan in (Bill) C-21, at the border, in prevention, to eradicate gun violence,” Mendicino told host Mercedes Stephenson.
The Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) said it kept more than 24,053 prohibited firearms and weapons off Canadian streets in its 2022 year-in-review report, and it saw an 11 per cent increase in firearms prevented from entering the country.
While the CPS has been able to build off successive years of strategizing with efforts like the gang strategy or creation of the firearms investigative unit, gun violence remains a top priority for the police service.
“Twenty years ago, if we seized a gun at a traffic stop, that was a big deal if we did it maybe once a week. It just was not very common,” O’Brien, who has more than two decades’ service with CPS, said.
“I would suggest now that probably every two days there is some type of gun seized at a traffic stop, as an example, so there’s no doubt that this is an issue.”
The potential for destruction with the pull of a trigger is front of mind for police as they investigate or, in some cases, respond directly to shootings.
“We know that a bullet that may be aimed or a gun may be aimed at a particular individual, but we know that bullet is not discriminatory, and that bullet may very well hit somebody else or injure somebody else,” O’Brien said.
“We’ve seen that in this community before. So we’re very concerned about the shootings we’re seeing.”
— With files from Sean Boynton, Global News