With up to 10,000 booze-swilling bar and club patrons in the Byward Market — plus an average of 500 calls ranging from theft to drug trafficking — central patrol officers are grossly understaffed, often on weekends, the Sun has learned.
Sometimes there are just four patrol officers working, “and that’s if everyone shows up for their shift,” said an Ottawa police source.
“Bar close” has been plaguing the service for at least 15 years, said Ottawa Police Association president Matt Skof, a central district sergeant.
When officers are handling calls and simultaneously dealing with thousands spilling onto downtown streets, “the resources that are deployed there when you have that crunch period time are just not sufficient,” said Skof.
“Do we manage it? Yes. Do we keep everybody safe? Yes, but it’s taxing, it’s tiring, it’s exhausting. It’s very difficult to maintain.”
On a typical shift, police deal with a slew of issues including disturbances, medical calls, impaired driving, break and enter, and assault.
Ultimately, residents in Sandy Hill and Lowertown east and north suffer, said Skof, since patrol officers — serving a “very dense” population — get tied up from midnight to 3 a.m.
Skof’s solution: Implement a user-fee system by levying a tax on alcohol sales in the Market which will pay for off-duty cops manning the streets.
“The issue is driven by the type of behaviours that come from alcohol use, and that’s exactly what goes on in the Market,” said Skof.
Steve Monuk of York Entertainment, which owns more than a dozen Market bars, isn’t backing the idea.
“As a resident down here, we pay more taxes than anybody else,” said Monuk.
In addition, “we generate more money down here than anywhere else in the city … but we don’t get to keep that money.”
Police and bar owners have a great relationship, Monuk and Skof agreed.
Nonetheless, Skof likens each weekend in the Market to a hockey game at Scotiabank Place or a major festival, where paid duties are common.
“Bar close in the Market is an event, and yet we’ve deployed the tax base to address it,” said Skof.
“The people who are using that service are far and away not living in that area.”
Ottawa police have never used paid duties for bar close, said Insp. Chris Rheaume, also from the central district.
Rheaume rejected the idea, saying paid duties at bars have potential for “corruption at its greatest.”
If one bar hires police and there’s a fight at a pub down the street, “who goes?” asked Rheaume.
But Skof’s model would have six officers — two cops on three streets, not inside bars — plus a floating sergeant.
By implementing paid duties, “right away, you’ve alleviated a substantial amount of calls. Just the presence alone helps,” said Skof.
“You see the uniform, you think twice.”
Rheaume maintains patrol is “never short-staffed. They have a minimum amount of officers that they always have to have,” he said.
Since September, neighbourhood officers have been on foot or bike in the Market until 4 a.m., attempting to be more proactive, said Rheaume.
“We’re going back to the bars and we’re going back to the (entertainment) district on a regular basis, so we’ve switched it up,” he said.
“The officers are getting out of their cars more and they’re getting to do more bike patrols downtown. We’re going back to that old-school model.”
Neighbourhood officers, though, are generally working on projects, such as drug or john sweeps, and while officers from the foot patrol/demo unit overlap, they’re gone before bars get filled.
Those officers on special assignment aren’t there for a patrol capacity or call-taking, argued Skof.
Regardless, “after 4 a.m. on a Friday or Saturday night, then the rest is up to patrol to take care of whatever,” said Rheaume.