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Ottawa police struggling to address surging car thefts

Ottawa Police Service Chief Eric Stubbs, centre, and Supt. Jamie Dunlop look on as Deputy Chief Trish Ferguson speaks during a news conference on Sept. 6, 2023. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Ottawa Police Service Chief Eric Stubbs, centre, and Supt. Jamie Dunlop look on as Deputy Chief Trish Ferguson speaks during a news conference on Sept. 6, 2023. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Ottawa Police Service Chief Eric Stubbs, centre, and Supt. Jamie Dunlop look on as Deputy Chief Trish Ferguson speaks during a news conference on Sept. 6, 2023.
Ottawa Police Service Chief Eric Stubbs, centre, and Supt. Jamie Dunlop look on as Deputy Chief Trish Ferguson speaks during a news conference on Sept. 6, 2023.

Ottawa Police Service Chief Eric Stubbs, centre, and Deputy Chief Patricia Ferguson, right, say tackling the high rate of auto thefts will require help from other jurisdictions. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Ottawa police say they've have had their hands full trying to stop a surge in vehicle thefts that shows no sign of slowing down, with the equivalent of five vehicles going missing every day last year.

Of the 1,854 vehicles lost in 2023, Sgt. Catherine Brown said about half were recovered, "which was substantial."

Ottawa police Chief Eric Stubbs suggested proactive patrols, daylight car chases and multitude of arrests have not been enough to stem a steady wave of thefts that seems yet to crest.

"We are finding they are younger people [being apprehended]: they're age 16, 17 to maybe 21, 22," he explained to reporters ahead of Monday's Ottawa Police Services Board meeting.

"They are not the heads of this organized crime. They are just being paid to do a job: come in and steal. So it's not stopping it."

Stubbs was "very pleased" by the Liberal announcement of a national auto-theft summit next month, saying this is not an Ottawa or Ontario issue, but a Canada-wide problem.

Organized crime exploiting 'loophole,' says councillor

Police say many of the vehicles secreted away from mall parking lots or brazenly taken from neighbourhood driveways make their way across provincial and national borders: rushed to Montreal, loaded into shipping containers and sent to Africa or the Middle East.

Coun. David Hill pushed the force's top brass for a new plan at the board meeting, calling for an "ambitious" approach.

"It really grinds my gears that organized crime has found this loophole to take advantage of jurisdictional boundaries to make a lucrative game of this," he later told CBC.

Barrhaven West Coun. David Hill listens to Alstom's vice-president of rolling stock David Van der Wee during a transit commission meeting Thursday.
Barrhaven West Coun. David Hill listens to Alstom's vice-president of rolling stock David Van der Wee during a transit commission meeting Thursday.

Barrhaven West Coun. David Hill wants Ottawa police to be "more ambitious" in its approach to tackling vehicle thefts. (Arthur White-Crummey/CBC)

Hill said his Barrhaven West constituents suffer the highest rate of vehicle theft in the city, with some residents reporting having cars stolen twice in the same year.

The way to "squeeze out the gaps" being exploited by cross-border crooks, he says, is to get all levels of government working together.

Staffing struggles stymie results

Disheartening to Hill was the fact Ottawa police have not had a dedicated auto-theft unit since 2017, when Deputy Chief Patricia Ferguson said a rise in shootings forced a shift of officers.

"The provincial task force also disbanded due to a decrease in organized auto thefts at that time," she explained.

Instead, the city's police service has relied on shorter-term campaigns.

"A local team would be the best option that focuses on auto theft only," she said.

"But with the current staffing levels, forming that team will mean that we are pulling resources from somewhere else and and that's something we struggle with."

Ottawa was not able to secure funding through Ontario's $18-million Preventing Auto Thefts program that launched late last year.

Ferguson said the force is working with other jurisdictions including the Canada Border Services Agency, which has seconded an officer to work with Ottawa police for several years.

A plan is also in the works to divert other Ontario funding to create a position for an intelligence officer, who would liaise with provincial teams and feed information to the front line.