Night Moves: A look at how Sarnia Police are contending with drug-fuelled street crime

As a member of Sarnia Police’s COPPS unit, Const. Shawn Urban is tasked with rounding up “The 0.5% responsible for 95% of the crime in Sarnia.” Troy Shantz

Troy Shantz

He certainly looked dead.

The 20-something man is sprawled on the floor of a home in central Sarnia and his skin is deathly white. He hasn’t drawn a breath in minutes.

Stories of fentanyl overdoses fill the news these days but this one is happening before my eyes.

While paramedics and firefighters hoist the man onto a gurney and get to work, a woman in a housecoat, teary-eyed, taps at her phone, messaging amid the storm.

Nearby, a Sarnia Police officer questions another man.

“His head just went back,” the witness says.

And that’s when the naloxone kicks in. The overdose victim’s chest suddenly bulges; he sucks in a deep draft of cool, fresh air. His eyes open wide.

The nasal spray is like a silver bullet for emergency workers on the front line of Sarnia’s drug crisis. It blocks the effects of opioids, reverses the overdose, and has brought another one back from the brink.

As the man recovers on the stretcher, his face behind an oxygen mask, a firefighter frustrated by the routineness of it all leans over and gives him some advice:

“Don’t. Smoke. Fentanyl!”

It’s 8:30 p.m., a few hours into the night shift of Sarnia Police officer Shawn Urban. As we drive away from the home he tells me Sarnia has two to three drug overdoses each week. Once again, naloxone has worked its magic.

Opioid-related deaths in Ontario have almost doubled over the past five years and more than 70% involve fentanyl.

“That guy should be dead,” he says.

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I’m doing a ride-along with Urban to see what police officers working the nightshift must contend with on Sarnia’s streets. Urban is one of a five-member unit called Community Oriented Police Problem Solving, or COPPS, which is tasked with tracking and rounding up people who have breached bail conditions or have outstanding arrest warrants.

Urban and his team work from a list of about 200 names, or as he calls them, “The 0.5% that commit 95% of the crime in Sarnia.” And the common denominator is addictive drugs.

“It’s not uncommon to have a $100 to $200 a day habit,” he said. “You’re either stealing or prostituting yourself or something along those lines.”

Dressed in black, with muted police shoulder flashes and cargo pants tucked into boots, Urban, 42, looks different than other officers on patrol.

Sarnia is divided into five zones and on any given night eight or nine officers police its streets. But COPPS have free rein.

“I kind of fly by the seat of my pants a little,” Urban explained earlier, while leaving the Christina Street headquarters in an unmarked cruiser.

We take a route that rolls through south-end side streets, retail parking lots and hotels on the Golden Mile, where rooms can be had for $46.50 a night.

“Sooner or later, hopefully, someone crosses our path,” he says. “You’ll probably see me drive by the same place eight to 10 times. They have to come out. A lot of them have drug problems and they have to get that fix.”

Many of the names on the list have outstanding theft, assault and weapons charges.

“One of my best fishing holes is Walmart and Lambton Mall. Drug addicts need money to buy their stuff and one of the (ways) is through theft. There are people that steal every day.”

Urban is also the city’s drug recognition enforcement officer and a member of its Emergency Response Team. He joined the COPPS unit eight years ago and says he enjoys that each shift is different.

“You can do your own thing. I’m not tied to the radio,” he says. “I’m not going to a certain house because some neighbour’s sprinkler is hitting the other neighbours driveway.

“I think everyone has their niche around here and I think this is mine.”

A car passes by. Urban uses a flurry of keystrokes on a console-mounted laptop. The provincial database reports the car’s licence sticker has expired. But he lets it go.

“We’re trying to look for something bigger,” he explains. “A suspended driver? That’s an arrestable offence. (It) means I can arrest them, search them, search the vehicle. You never know what you’re going to find.”

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It’s 12:30 a.m. and the streets are largely deserted now. As we round a corner near the downtown core our headlights lock onto four people in a group on the street, seated on bicycles.

“Here’s something,” Urban says, getting out.

He knows most of them by name, including one known as a devoted metal thief. The guy recognizes Urban as well.

Instead he walks over to the only woman and begins asking her questions, calmly and politely. She appears nervous, likely high. Her eyes dart about.

Urban relays her name and DOB to dispatch.

“You might want to get off your bike,” he says. The woman has an outstanding break-and-enter charge and has missed the court date, dispatch reports in Urban’s earpiece. She also has an 11 p.m. curfew.

“Do you want to call a lawyer?” he asks.

The woman is arrested, handcuffed and placed in the back of the cruiser. He unzips her backpack and inside are needle tips, bits of foil, elastic tourniquets and a utility knife.

Nothing illegal, he notes, but you don’t need to be a veteran to put two and two together.

“Why did she get stopped in the first place? She had no light on her bike.”

The night proves to be a quiet one, with few arrests. But interacting with people, getting to know them and keeping tabs on things is key to the unit.

“It’s not one area of Sarnia,” says Urban. “From Lakeshore Road to Campbell Street, I can show you different houses where drug addicts go. There’s probably more of them in the south end but (no place) in Sarnia is immune.”

Urban said he once regarded his own neighbourhood as safe but now “religiously” locks his car and arms his home security system.

Things are changing and not necessarily for the better, he concludes.

“The guy going through your car at night is doing it for drugs. He’s not trying to feed his family, he’s trying to get his next hit for his addiction.”