The new message coming from the Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit in British Columbia (CFSEU-BC) is clear: if you're going to participate in violent gang behaviour and carry a gun, you're not welcome in B.C.
The CFSEU-BC has been around since 2004, but when RCMP C/Supt. Dan Malo took over at the helm of the unit as chief officer in 2012, he made some major changes. Instead of focusing on the commodity side of gangs like drug trafficking and money laundering, as it used to, the unit is now strictly focused on the behaviour associated with gang violence.
"That's our mandate. It's very specific," says Malo. "That's what we are measured on – kidnappings, drive-by shootings, extortion and that sort of violent activity that is behaviour-based gang lifestyle and it's our job to curb that, which is very unique in the country."
This is the unit's solution to a growing public safety threat in the province. In a span of 10 to 12 years, peaking in 2006 to 2008, about 115 youth were killed in gang-related violence and shootouts.
End Gang Life
It was clear that B.C. needed an innovative and fresh approach to address the problem.
So when Sgt. Lindsey Houghton joined the CFSEU-BC around the same time as Malo, he was asked to look at the public engagement and outreach strategies, and see where they could go.
What he came up with was End Gang Life, an enforcement and education campaign that CFSEU-BC launched in December 2013.
"There were gaps in our education and prevention engagement strategies," says Houghton. "We looked at what we could be doing, and the way I envisioned it was – and this is how the End Gang Life concept was born – like a jigsaw puzzle."
The pieces include everything from engaging the community and media, to going into high schools, addressing the myths and realities of life in a gang, and developing a campaign that includes posters, television public service announcements and radio ads. This is in addition to the CFSEU-BC Uniform Gang Enforcement Team being out in communities conducting disruption, suppression and enforcement of violent gang members.
The campaign will consist of several phases with each phase lasting four to six months. The first phase of the program targets those people who are directly involved in gangs and organized crime who have children and family, those on the periphery of gangs, and their family members. This early phase of the campaign will also engage members of the public.
In it together
Instead of several organizations working on this issue independently, CFSEU-BC, which itself is comprised of officers from 14 different police agencies in B.C., has been working with academic organizations and community groups, using a "two heads are better than one" approach to target gang violence in the region.
"We want to engage people and make people upset," says Houghton. "We want people to talk about this and mobilize in their communities, and say 'Enough is enough, I don't want this happening in my community!' "
And over the years, several communities have said just that. And it's really those groups and not the police that have risen to the charge, says Malo.
As an educator and community activist, Balwant Sanghera was concerned about what was happening to the Indo-Canadian youth in the region. He noticed an increase in violence in this community and felt compelled to take a stand against it.
In 2002, along with a former police officer and a number of Sikh Temple leaders and many other community organizations, he formed the Sikh Societies of Lower Mainland to address the issue, which has since evolved into the South Asian Community Coalition Against Youth Violence (SACCAYV) as more organizations came together.
"By working together, we've made a big difference," says Sanghera. "It's an honour for me and SACCAYV to be a part of this effort where the community, police and academic research are working collaboratively to keep our young people on the right track." Dr. Gira Bhatt, a faculty member with the psychology depart
ment at Kwantlen University in Surrey, B.C., is a partner with SACCAYV and CFSEU-BC. As the director of Acting Together: Community-University Research/Alliance (AT-CURA) project, she's leading her team of seven academic researchers and 11 community agencies through a homegrown approach aimed at preventing youth gang involvement.
"As an academic institution, we've always believed in connecting with our community," says Bhatt. "So we hosted a focus group and we were surprised with the response and based on that we determined that the academics and the community partners must work together."
AT-CURA received a $1 million CURA award to do research in high schools and universities and focus on people's strengths under the theoretical framework of positive psychology, rather than risk factors, which have been researched time and time again.
"The large majority of our youth don't get into a criminal lifestyle," says Bhatt. "Our community is very proactive. It's a very thriving community in Surrey. So why not examine this stream of youth to understand what's keeping them away from a life of crimes and violence?"
Houghton worked with AT-CURA to determine who best to target and how, for the End Gang Life campaign.
Getting tough on gangs
Malo expects that this new approach with End Gang Life will seriously decrease violent criminal activity in B.C. The unit is already seeing a decrease in the number of homicides in 2014 compared to other years.
"We're knocking on their doors. We're telling them that we know they're violent gang offenders and we know what they're doing in our communities. We're going to remove all the profits that they're making. We're going to take away and choke out the abilities for them to behave in that way. We're going to mobilize the public and their families against them. Our promise to them is that they'll continue to have that enhanced police attention until their behaviour changes," says Malo.
He predicts that one of four things will happen to those involved in gangs as a result of the End Gang Life campaign and the unit's efforts. The violent offenders will end up in jail, they'll turn up dead, they'll move out of B.C., or gang members will choose to leave gang life, which is the best outcome possible.
"If any of those four happen, it stands to reason that we'll see a decrease in gang-related crime. This will ultimately result in a positive return on investment for CFSEU-BC and make communities across the province safer," says Malo.
The End Gang Life campaign of combining education with enforcement is already making an impact. In a recent raid on a gang leader's home, the enforcement team was surprised to find an End Gang Life poster on his wall depicting a young girl sitting on a swing over a body draped in a yellow tarp with the caption "Are you going to be there when she needs a push?"
The gang member broke down in tears and said he didn't want that to be his daughter growing up without a father and asked for their help to get out.
Houghton designed the edgy ads to have the highest impact possible on the targeted demographic.
Based on research from AT-CURA, they determined who to target in the first phase and how best to impact them.
Jordan Buna, a former gang member from the lower mainland who now works with AT-CURA, reviewed the poster. He says that most ads targeted at gangs say you're going to go to jail or you're going to get shot, which have little effect because gangsters already know this. It's a part of doing business. But this campaign hits them where it counts.
"I know for a fact for a lot of these guys, they have zero humanity left, but the one place in common where they do have a little bit of humanity left is if they have kids," says Buna.
The next phases of the campaign will be just as targeted and focus on youth or different cultures like the South Asian community. The flexibility of the campaign will allow them to design a phase around a particular incident in a community if necessary.
A new breed of gangster
Whether it's the CFSEU-BC, AT-CURA or the community, the solution will focus on the B.C. landscape, using research from the province to find homegrown solutions to the violence.
In B.C., gangs are a different breed from the ones portrayed on television. They aren't "blood in blood out" where members live and die in their territory. Instead, they are multiracial, intelligent and transient, which is why they require a local solution.
"Gang members here aren't driven by socioeconomic status, they're not driven by ethnicity, they're driven by one reason and one reason only, and that's to make as much money as fast as they can," says Houghton.
"When I was growing up, I stayed out of trouble," says Buna. "I come from a two-parent family, middle-class background. There's no broken home situation with me."
He says the reason he got involved in the gang lifestyle in his late teens and early 20s was entirely motivated by monetary gain.
B.C. gangsters get killed in places like Mexico. A number of them travel the world as part of their criminal enterprise. They get arrested in places like Spain and the Philippines.
They're multi-ethnic and they operate like a business, working all over the province, across Canada and around the world to expand.
"I've talked to some academics during the development of this program," says Houghton. "One comment that stands out to me was the notion that B.C. communities don't necessarily have a gang problem. However, the province itself has a gang problem and the communities are in it."
CFSEU-BC hopes to get even more communities to reject gang violence. With constant exposure in the media of shootings and killing, Malo believes that communities have become numb to the issue. He thinks that with more targeted exposure and End Gang Life, it's going to mobilize them.
"If the police engage more effectively with the community and we all start looking at community-based systems, then we believe that it will gain momentum," says Malo.
Moving forward, these groups will continue to pool their resources, expertise and experiences from all corners to make the communities safe for everyone.
"No one group can work in isolation no matter how powerful they may be," says Bhatt. "The police needs the community, the community needs the school, and the schools need the policy makers. They all need to work together."
Sometimes it takes a little MAGIC
In Enoch, Alta., a small community near Edmonton, mothers and elders from the community are working side-by-side with the RCMP to keep youth out of gangs.
Like in many First Nations communities, gangs prey on children to recruit new members, says Cst. Kim Mueller of the Stony Plain/Spruce Grove Detachment. Kids are attracted to the lifestyle for the sense of belonging and perception of power that goes with it.
The program called Mothers Against Gangs in Communities, or MAGIC, was designed to keep local youth out of the vice grip of gangs.
"With the kids, to help them get that healthy start by mentoring, to me it's the fastest way to make our communities healthy again," says Mueller, the RCMP member supporting the program.
Mueller says at first, it was a challenge to get the community engaged as they were nervous to identify at-risk youth and take a stand against gangs for fear of retaliation. But now the community supports the program, which has nine boys between the ages of 14 and 17 enrolled.
"We knew going in that this had to be the community's project and they had to support it," says Mueller. "We are here as a partner and not leading the show."
The program uses educational, fun and cultural activities to positively influence at-risk youth and teach them that there are other options in life than joining a gang.
One year into the two-year pilot project, they are seeing the successes that positive mentoring has had on the boys.
"At first they were so proud of all of the negative things they've done in their life," says Mueller. "They didn't have dreams. They didn't see a positive future for themselves. We're slowly starting to see them plan for the future and set goals for themselves, which is so awesome."
– Deidre Seiden