Gang violence was left to its own devices for too long

By Daniel Pagan

As the city is still reeling from shock over the gang shootings on New Year’s Day that killed three people, Calgarians are asking if the Calgary Police Service is doing enough to stop the violence.

Former police officer and University of Calgary adjunct anthropology assistant professor Dr. Catherine Prowse suggested to the Calgary Herald that the city failed to take its gang problem seriously in 2003. The CPS was reluctant to admit there were gangs setting up in the city, she said, due to a fear of giving gangs undeserved media attention.

The delay cost police time to gather evidence and make community alliances.

“When the issue of gang issues arise in cities, police agencies generally pursue one of the two avenues,” said Prowse in an e-mail. “Some believe that to acknowledge their presence may be giving them the recognition they crave, which may fuel the problem. The other way is to acknowledge that groups have transitioned to street gang status and proceed in that direction involving the community and media. Regrettably, Calgary opted for the former approach.”

Prowse said the word “gang” came up internally in the police service before 2003, but it was five years later before it was used publicly.

Organized crime operations centre acting staff sergeant Gord Eriksson admitted the service was not paying enough attention to gangs at the time.

However, Eriksson pointed out that the city did outlaw motorcycle gangs and is conducting investigations on several other gangs.

Currently, the CPS is working on expanding its Gang Enforcement Team and developing community alliances through town halls.

“The Calgary Police Service is co-ordinating efforts with our partners at all levels of government to increase the effectiveness of the judicial system and seek finances to fund our organized crime investigative teams and uniformed members,” said Eriksson.

Eriksson warned that dealing with gangs is an ongoing, resource-based challenge.

He explained that the gangs deal in drugs and firearms and do not care about the rest of society. They keep a low profile compared to other cities to avoid identification.

“Toronto’s gang situation is very different from Calgary’s in that our gangs are not typically territorial,” said Eriksson. “Our gangs are very fluid, well-connected, both provincially and inter-provincially, and very sophisticated. Violence that occurred in our downtown core is more attributed to street-level criminals or too much alcohol.”

Liberal Member of Legislative Assembly for Calgary Buffalo Kent Hehr stands by the CPS.

As the Shadow Minister of Justice, his inspiration to fight gangs is linked to personal experience– he was shot as a bystander in a drive-by shooting in 2002.

Hehr said politicians were too slow reacting to this problem, citing last spring when Alberta funded only 200 of 400 police officers requested.

He added the police need new legislative tools to hit organized criminal elements in their wallets, such as a bill he proposed, which would allow officers to seize the license of anyone driving around with unregistered weapons and fine them $20,000. The proceeds would go to victims of gang violence.

“Family and Community Support Services estimates that for every dollar spent on preventative programming, $6 to $12 is saved on future spending on policing, justice, family abuse, health care and additional treatment,” said Hehr.

Fourth-year nursing student Nicole Brandon agreed with Hehr that preventative programming is necessary. She lived in the downtown core for six and a half years and regularly felt unsafe.

“As long as gangs exist and they are carrying weapons, I think we’re all at risk of being stuck in the crossfire,” she said. “The police should consider working with other cities that are successful in reducing gang activity and work with professionals that study the psychology behind gangs.”

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