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New heights in organized crime and violence — some of it in the form of “pop up” gangs imported from B.C. — have prompted new crime-fighting strategies for the guns and gangs unit of the Edmonton Police Service.

The Police Commission heard disturbing numbers this week.

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Seized firearms and air guns are up 33 per cent over four years — up to 2,463 from 1,765.

A graph shows a steady upward swoop of shootings, from 158 in 2019 to 221 last year — up by almost 50 per cent.

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The key drivers? Trafficking of both drugs and weapons, extortion, conflicts and retaliations and “reputation building”— and thanks to fancy new computer-assisted “printers,” actual firearms manufacturing, said Staff Sgt. Eric Stewart.

“It’s not a secret here in Edmonton we had, for the last three years, an increase in violent shooting offences in our city, an unacceptable trend of organized crime-related and gang-related (crimes),” Stewart said.

“We’ve seen a lot more public events when it came to our shooting events in our city. We’ve seen an increase in people being injured and killed when it came to firearms.”

Some of those numbers are because B.C. crime has crossed the Rockies, resulting in more shooting events on Edmonton streets, he said.

“In the last couple of years, we had some organized crime groups make their way from the Lower Mainland into Edmonton and some of that continued violence started to occur in our city in 2022 and 2023. From the enforcement and some of the action on the Lower Mainland, we’ve seen some of that come our way, which had an increase a lot of our shooting events here in the city,” he said.

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Similar B.C. crime has been seen on the streets of Calgary and Ontario, he noted.

“We have a unique landscape here in Edmonton. We don’t have the traditional 10 to 15 gangs, or organized crime groups that seem to function in our city.

“We have our street-level gangs that have been around for a while but what seems to happen here is we have individuals that come together for a common goal when it comes to criminality.

“That group is what you call a new emerging group in our city. Through enforcement, through homicide, through whatever happens, that group disperses and they move on and they leave and then the next group comes up,” Stewart said.

Edmonton communities might not see easily-identifiable gang markers with clear labels.

“Back in the 2000s we had that traditional gang like they have on the Lower Mainland (of BC) or out east. We don’t see that here. It’s kind of unique to Alberta, here in Edmonton, how these how these groups operate. So it seems to come from all over the place as they develop themselves and … and then we go enforce and then we try push them out of our city or through incarceration,” he said.

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All the numbers were the catalyst for the EPS’s new guns and gangs unit.

Efforts are organized into acronyms. There’s a new, second gang suppression team (GST), and focused deterrence in the form of the gang response and intelligence program (GRiP).

A new organized crime hub works to leverage data-driven targeting and directed activities for guns and gangs, and the drug and gang enforcement section teams.

And there’s Project GASLIGHT, currently conducting more than 30 ongoing investigations around extortion, arsons and shootings targeting affluent Edmonton residents of South Asian descent.

Getting guns and drugs off the street

Guns have been making their way from Edmonton’s lawful owners to Edmonton criminals, and a newly beefed-up firearms compliance unit (FCU) has three more members as they partner with the Chief Firearms Office.

“What we did see here in Edmonton was lawful firearms owners that had expired firearms licenses, or they had mental health issues and were unable to deal with their firearms license, but they had a cache of firearms,” Stewart said.

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“Organized crime groups were exploiting these individuals and committing B-and-E’s or finding a way to get into the residence and they were taking their firearms.”

The FCU connects with lawful gun owners to bring licensing into compliance or safely dispose of unwanted firearms, he said.

The drug expert investigations team (DEIT) focuses on street-level drug activity and trafficking to do with fentanyl and high-harm drugs like methamphetamine.

The EPS seized $4.7 million in controlled substances in 2023.

“They’re out targeting the street-level dealers that are causing havoc in our city, where you’re seeing a lot of the overdose happening on our streets,” Stewart said.

The EPS collaborates with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, the Alberta RCMP and other agencies.

“Where we’ve come in policing I think is really good. Our intelligence is shared more freely,” Stewart said.

“So if there’s intelligence of groups or individuals bringing drug loads or supplying individuals in Edmonton, whether that investigation starts outside of Edmonton, we are working closely with our partners and we’ve partnered up on a lot of investigations outside of Edmonton to focus on this,” he said.

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“We’ve come leap years ahead to share intelligence and work together. We do focus on the Edmonton problem but … it’s a lot bigger problem and we do work closely with those partners on them,” he said.

Additional seizures in a year’s work included almost half a million dollars worth of stolen property and $425,800 in cash.

Public comment criticism

In the public comments section of Thursday’s Police Commission meeting, Edmonton resident Lindsae Moon asked for more transparency of actual costs of everything from the encampment sweeps to the EPS helicopter — and a half-billion dollars of tax money.

“Edmontonians are stretched financially. We have the right to know how our tax dollars are being spent,” she said. “Are we actually getting what we’re paying for here? I think not.

“And I cannot find these numbers anywhere. There’s zero transparency on what these things are costing us.”

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