The root of gang violence

Sean Shaw writes about Mayor Don Atchison’s recent comments on gang violence.

To suggest that gang violence in Saskatoon is near the point of “drive-by shootings” is irresponsible on a number of fronts. First and foremost, such a statement plays on the fears of safety that many Saskatoon residents have. Secondly, it grossly overblows the current situation here in Saskatoon and mis-characterizes the type of gang violence that predominantly occurs in Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver.

The point the mayor did try to make, namely that residents should report anything suspicious, gets completely lost in the over-the-top rhetoric better saved for scripts of bad TV cop shows.

The problem is that when you are a hammer, everything is a nail.  The mayor’s statements frame this as a crime fighting issue rather than broader societal issue.

The RCMP Gazette sees the issue from a broader perspective.

The RCMP GazetteIt is difficult to accurately estimate the size of street gang membership in Canada. In its 2006 Annual Report on Organized Crime, the Criminal Intelligence Service Canada pegged the number of street gang members under the age of 30 at approximately 11,000. This estimate is perhaps conservative and one that will grow in coming years as police agencies across the country continue to expand their specialty gang units and develop better local intelligence. Taking into account known gang members, suspected gang members, girls and young women who are associated with gangs in some way (as girlfriends or income earners through the sex trade), the many young “wannabe” gang members who are at risk of full gang membership, and the under-reporting of gang affiliation in northern Aboriginal communities, the number of Canadian street gang members and so-called affiliates could very well be much higher.

Here’s the solution

Irrespective of its size or dimension, however, the street gang issue is simply not a problem that police must grapple with alone. The RCMP, municipal and provincial police agencies and others now know that police cannot arrest their way out of the street gang problem through sheer force or willpower. They need the co-operation of all citizens and sectors of society to stem the growth of gangs. Mobilized communities that accept responsibility for the existence of gangs in their locales are the most effective in dealing with gangs.

Today, each city in Canada ought to take careful stock of its local gang situation with police, citizens, political leaders, social service agencies, educators and other front line professionals at the table, and craft a balanced and collaborative approach to the gang issue. Police-led enforcement and suppression should focus on the 20 per cent of all gang members that are responsible for 80 per cent of the drama and violence we see in the streets.

To support this activity, greater resources must be deployed in early identification and intervention of medium- to high-risk youth, in order to steer them clear of gangs in the first place. Taxpayers must demand more government investment in evidence-based prevention programs that equip youth under age 12 with the protective life skills and knowledge they need to avoid the pull of gangs and other high-risk behaviours. More must also be done to help gang members exit the gang life, because redemption is still possible for the many who have been conditioned to believe that once you become a gang member, there is no way out.

You have a couple of issues here.  One you have to have an honest discussion about the gang problem in Saskatoon.  Talking about drive by shootings is one extreme while ignoring the fact that Saskatoon has some very violent gangs is the other.  The other part of the conversation is that you have to have is that this isn’t going to be a short term crime fighting issue.  It starts with some really uncomfortable questions about why we are losing kids to the gang lifestyle and what we have to do to stop (or at least slow it down).

The anti gang literature that I have read in the last year targeted towards kids is incredibly depressing because it’s tools to allow 12 year old survive without any parental help (which means that there is very little or no help available to them from home) which means that one has to have another tough conversation as to why.  It’s more complicated than calling the police the next time I see a gang member and a corrections guard walking into a neighbourhood pub.

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