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Street gangs 'increasing in sophistication' as they spread north from GTA, police say

'Street gang members and associates from the Greater Toronto Area travel into Simcoe County communities for the purpose of drug trafficking, including cocaine and opioids,' says OPP official

A multi-million-dollar funding announcement from the provincial government last week to step up the fight against guns and gangs in communities across Ontario is being welcomed here at home as criminal organziations spread north.

The province says it will spend $75 million to help police departments dismantle criminal organizations, enhance investigative supports, increase collaboration throughout the justice sector, and stop the flow of illegal guns across the border. The funding announcement was made Nov. 16 by Premier Doug Ford, Solicitor General Sylvia Jones and Attorney General Doug Downey.

In an email to BarrieToday, Barrie police communications co-ordinator Peter Leon although the funding announcement was just made last week, it will greatly enhance local law enforcement efforts to create a safer community for its citizens. 

“It will provide the tools and resources to ensure the safety and security of all our citizens and let those who choose to participate in criminal activity that their actions are unwelcome,” Leon said. “Gangs and gun-related activity have no place in any community and these additional resources will give police the ability to combat these illegal activities that compromise community safety.”

Across Simcoe County, it has also become commonplace in recent years for firearms to be seized alongside illegal drugs. 

Ontario Provincial Police spokesperson Bill Dickson said the funding announcement “certainly affects” Simcoe County, as well as other regions throughout Ontario, including the OPP Central Region community street crime units (CSCU), which have recently seen the proliferation of street gangs from larger urban areas branching out into more rural areas. 

“Street gang members and associates from the Greater Toronto Area travel into Simcoe County communities for the purpose of drug trafficking, including cocaine and opioids,” Dickson said in an email to BarrieToday the day after the funding announcement.

“These street gang members and associates are often carrying firearms and other prohibited weapons, or have a long history of having access to firearms and prohibited weapons," he added. 

Dickson cited the recent investigation dubbed Project Garfield, which saw street gangs migrating to Simcoe County for the purpose of drug trafficking. 

“Urban-based organized crime groups, such as street gangs, are developing province-wide criminal networks and are increasing in sophistication," he said. "Their migration, size and scope have provincial impacts requiring the OPP and other partners to work in collaboration.”

Downey, who is also the local MPP for Barrie-Springwater-Oro-Medonte, said the goal of the new funding is to mobilize experienced Crown prosecutors who, through the new guns and gangs mobile prosecution unit, will address cases in priority regions across Ontario.

“As investigations and prosecutions of dangerous criminal networks grow increasingly complex, we are taking measures to ensure police and prosecutors have the tools and resources they need to hold offenders accountable and stand up for victims as they seek justice,” Downey said in a news release. 

According to the province, Criminal Intelligence Service Ontario data indicates a "strong correlation" between street gangs, gun violence as well as drug and human trafficking. Forty-eight per cent of all firearm traffickers are street gangs, and 90 per cent of identified street gangs use firearms to promote their criminal activities. Additionally, more than half (52 per cent) of crime groups involved in human trafficking started out as street gangs.

Between 2020 and 2021, the number of street gangs involved in the opioid market more than doubled from 16 per cent to 36 per cent, and tripled from five to 18 per cent in the methamphetamine market, the province says.