(PHOTO: Cst. Mike Dosdall of the Ottawa Police. He’s one of several officers who regularly patrol the Stittsville area. Photo by Devyn Barrie.)
Cst. Mike Dosdall pulled into Brown’s parking lot on a Sunday morning in early May. As he drove in, there was a cash register drawer sitting next to a Tim Horton’s coffee cup near the garden centre.
“Just leave the cash drawer in the middle of the parking lot,” he said, as he parked in an empty section.
“We’re in the underbelly of Stittsville,” he joked.
Dosdall is one of several Ottawa police officers whose job it is to patrol the Stittsville area — StittsvilleCentral.ca rode along for the morning shift back on May 7.
Reporters who join police officers on patrol must sign a confidentiality agreement that they will only report in generality. Specifics such as locations of calls and identifies of suspects are under a gag order.
That’s in case something happens. But Stittsville on a Sunday morning is quiet and sleepy – in the three hours Dosdall was on the road, there wasn’t a single call for him to attend. No break-ins. No fires. Not even a collision.
“That’s why people want to live (here),” he said. “The drama’s low.”
But even for Sunday, zero calls in a morning is unusual – he said there would normally be at least one by 11 a.m., if not in Stittsville, then elsewhere in his patrol area.
Dosdall patrols the area of Stittsville and Bridlewood. Up until a few months ago, he also looped into Bells Corners.
Stittsville is one of Ottawa’s fastest growing communities, one in an era of change too fast to keep track of.
Boundaries move. Subdivisions go up seemingly overnight.
Police are becoming – or trying to become – more embedded into the community. But they aren’t struggling to adapt.
In fact, they’re hardly changing their ways at all.
A drive down Fernbank Road, heading towards Terry Fox Drive, reveals a seam in the stitching between Stittsville and Kanata. The suburb suddenly ends and is replaced with fields, some of which is being filled in with new subdivisions under construction.
The stark contrast isn’t just cosmetic. The community is growing in all directions and suburbanites are mixing in with rural residents more than ever before. With it comes a sense of friction.
For example, police occasionally respond to reports of shootings in the rural areas around Stittsville, that simply turned out to be someone legally hunting in one of their fields – something that never would have been considered a problem in old Stittsville decades ago.
“Where worlds collide,” as Dosdall called it.
And for police, that’s a challenge. “We need to meet the needs of urban residents, suburban residents and rural residents,” he said.
He’s been on the force for about ten years and for most of that time patrolled this area. Stittsville has always been growing and changing, but he said police haven’t. Staffing levels, as far as he’s noticed, haven’t changed much.
“I don’t think (growth) changes the way we do things,” said Staff Sgt. Paul Wilson, who heads the force’s community safety services section.
Police are paying attention to the growth of the suburbs, he said, and review on an annual basis where more resources should go.
“Relative to some other communities, (Stittsville’s) definitely not high needs,” he said.
Earlier this year Ottawa police underwent one of the largest structural changes in its history, redeploying hundreds of frontline police officers – including five community constables. These constables, down to ten from 15, act as liaisons between community members and the police, taking part in local events and responding to residents’ concerns.
Before, Stittsville had its own constable, Phong Le. He was replaced by Cst. Kevin Williams, who now has several other communities on his plate, including Nepean. (Williams wasn’t available for comment on this story.)
“It is a change,” Wilson said. The loss of designated community officers doesn’t sound good, but he said the reorganization should be a net benefit for communities.
“What the new model focuses on is that every patrol officer is a community officer,” he said. “I think that the long-term improvement will be the identification that every officer has that they are responsible for the community.”
Back on patrol, the radio in Dosdall’s Ford Escape crackles with a call for a police unit – someone appears to be high and is having a tantrum in a shopping centre elsewhere in the city.
Dosdall recalls one incident he responded to in Stittsville, over a year ago. A man who appeared to be mentally ill travelled in via bus and walked into a store, where he put up a ruckus trying to find his “son.”
He accosted several people before officers arrested him for causing a public disturbance.
Events such as that are usually isolated, with most other police activity in the area more low-key.
Downtown, there might be stabbings, shootings or drug busts.
In the suburbs, it’s usually crashes, domestic disturbances or runaway children.
“I think a lot of that has to do with the density and demographics of the population,” Wilson said. Stittsville is more sparse than an urban area and its residents tend to be more affluent, he said.
Density and relative wealth are just two of many theories criminologists have as to why suburbs such as Stittsville experience less crime.
Compare Stittsville to Somerset ward, which encompasses the downtown core.
With a median after-tax household income of about half of Stittsville, and density over seven-and-a-half times more, Somerset reported nearly 5,000 total criminal code offenses in 2011, compared to 507 for Stittsville, according to police statistics.
There is no reason to believe Stittsville’s income levels will drop, but two of the variables – density and population – are bound to increase over time. Stittsville is expect to hit over 70,000 residents by 2031.
So at some point, Wilson said, there’s going to be a need for more police.
“When you look at any neighbourhood that’s gonna have that much growth there’s gonna be tension,” he said.
There’s no certainty how growth over the next decade will change crime in Stittsville, but for now, it’s more of the usual for police.