Surrey crime crisis requires greater intervention from higher levels of government

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      Two or three times a week on the local TV news, there's another report of a shooting in Surrey.

      The latest incident near 126 Street and 88A Avenue this morning claimed the life of a male.

      Police say there's a low-level drug war between members of South Asian and Somali gangs. And earlier this month, the Mounties released pictures of several young men in an attempt to bring family pressure on them to stop the shootings.

      Whenever these situations erupt, there is a multitude of contributing factors.

      There are sociological, political, economic, and even neurological issues that must be acknowledged to effectively tackle the problem.

      Merely labelling the gangsters as the bad guys and flashing their photos in front of the media isn't going to provide any long-term solutions.

      Youths need mentorship

      Late last year, I interviewed former Vancouver police gang-squad officer Harjit Sajjan, who's the federal Liberal candidate in Vancouver South. He believes that kids are most vulnerable to gang recruitment between Grades 8 and 10.

      "In Grade 7, you're a very big fish in a very small pond," he said. "When you're in Grade 8 [because elementary schools feed into high schools], you're a very small fish in a very big pond. That's when the social re-engineering happens."

      When Sajjan was in high school, he knew the notorious gangster Bindy Johal, who was shot dead in a Vancouver nightclub in 1998.

      Sajjan explained that Johal was very intelligent and was an excellent math student. But in secondary school, Johal ended up running around with the wrong crowd, which led him into the gang life.

      "His mentors were the wrong mentors," Sajjan noted.

      Sajjan said he was fortunate to have very good mentors in his youth and when he joined the Canadian Armed Forces reserves. And he would like to see more efforts put into providing mentorship to kids to prevent them from joining gangs, particularly at that most vulnerable period during adolescence.

      Vancouver intervened in ways that Surrey didn't

      The City of Vancouver has made tremendous inroads in tackling crime in recent years. Part of the reason is because of its aging population. Older people commit fewer offences than young males.

      But it goes deeper than that. In the late 1990s, Vancouver politicians from all three levels of government worked together to bring federal funds to the city as part of the Vancouver Agreement.

      Vancouver's four-pillars approach to drug addiction—promoting prevention, treatment, enforcement, and harm reduction—eventually led to the creation of a supervised-injection site. It has been supported by the Vancouver Police Department, in part because it has led to a sharp reduction in overdose deaths and less street disorder in surrounding areas. 

      Council sharply increased the size of the police force, providing a highly visible presence, particularly in the Downtown Eastside. Surrey council, on the other hand, was much slower to increase the number of RCMP officers.

      Meanwhile, Vancouver police officers like Kal Dosanjh have a long history of mentoring kids through soccer programs and other activities. The Mounties tend to transfer officers through different detachments (and sometimes, the officers themselves request transfers), making it tougher to develop these long-term connections. It doesn't help that Surrey is 316 square kilometres, which is nearly two and half times larger than the area of Vancouver.

      Dosanjh ran for a council seat in Surrey in 2014 because he was dissatisfied with how the city was responding to the crime problem. He announced that he wanted to "empower youth to make positive life choices". In his first attempt at public office, Dosanjh came 11th in the race for eight seats on Surrey council.

      Prohibition promoted in Surrey

      While the VPD has embraced a supervised-injection site, the RCMP has remained opposed to this form of harm reduction. The Mounties have also been strong proponents of the war on drugs, devoting significant resources against marijuana. (Commissioner Bob Paulson has softened his language more recently, but there was a doubling of marijuana-possession charges in B.C. between 2005 and 2011, according to a research paper by SFU professor Neil Boyd.)

      A group that includes former and current police officers, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, has a mission of reducing "the multitude of harmful consequences resulting from fighting the war on drugs and to lessen the incidence of death, disease, crime, and addiction by ending drug prohibition".

      Its message hasn't appeared to have had much impact, if at all, on Surrey municipal politicians, the RCMP, or the Conservative government.

      Meanwhile, the B.C. Liberal government hasn't raised any concerns about how the political climate in Surrey might be contributing to the rash of recent shootings. This probably hasn't even crossed Attorney General Suzanne Anton's mind.

      Drugs provide fast money in a slow economy

      There's a reason why some immigrant youth might be attracted to the drug trade. They often see their parents working incredibly hard for low wages. The prospect of quick cash and the perception that they'll be respected as a gangster can be very alluring.

      A provincial employment-standards law that permits employers to offer two-hour shifts is more likely to hurt immigrants who work in the fast-food or home-support industries. 

      A provincial minimum-wage law that is close to the bottom in Canada is also going to hit immigrant workers disproportionately.

      A federal government that encourages temporary-foreign workers to come to Canada is going to drive down wages in industries that hire large numbers of immigrants, thereby reducing family incomes.

      A federal government that refuses to invest public funds in building social housing is going to have a greater effect in low-income neighbourhoods where gangland violence might be more likely to occur.

      A slow economy caused in part by rising income inequality will give young people less hope of making a future for themselves through conventional means.

      All of these issues can be influenced by elected officials.

      Neurology offers clues into risk taking

      If you scan the list of people charged in connection with Vancouver's Stanley Cup riot, the vast majority were males under the age of 25.

      Following the hockey riot, I interviewed Dr. Elizabeth Zoffman, a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at UBC. She has a special interest in forensic psychiatry, riots, and other forms of mass behaviour.

      She told me in 2011 that the prefrontal cortex evolved in humans long after the emotional centre of the brain was in place. The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that plans, thinks, and inhibits impulses.

      As a result of how humans evolved, Zoffman postulated that under certain circumstances, the impulse-control system can be overridden by the limbic system, which is the emotional centre of the brain.

      In young males, the prefrontal cortex may not fully develop in until they're around the age of 25. Therefore, they're more likely to engage in risky behaviour because they aren't necessarily as equipped as older adults to control their impulses.

      One former police officer and crowd-control expert who's familiar with Zoffman's work once told me that the key to policing is to get people using the prefrontal cortex of their brains.

      Of the 13 males' names released by the RCMP in connection with the Surrey and Delta shootings, only one was over the age of 25: Derrick Bequette. Eight of them were 21 years old or younger.

      Where to go from here?

      There's not much hope that Prime Minister Stephen Harper or the RCMP will pay a great deal of attention to the sociological, political, economic, and neurological issues that are playing a role in the rising gang violence in Surrey.

      The mayor, Linda Hepner, is intelligent enough to recognize that what's happening is a result of a complex series of factors. And she can push harder on senior levels of government to invest more resources in providing mentorship for teenagers in the Surrey school system.

      But part of the problem is the provincial government's insistence on balancing budgets at all cost—to the point where there's actually an $879-million surplus on the books for the coming year.

      Education Minister Peter Fassbender represents a Surrey constituency, but he's already indicated a propensity for increasing funding to independent schools.

      According to his ministry's service plan, independent schools will see a 34 percent increase in public funds from 2014–15 to 2017–18. Taking independent-school funding out of the mix, the public-education system will only receive a three-percent hike over the same period.

      It won't leave a lot of funding to address some of the social issues in schools that might be contributing to the gang problem down the road.

      The opposition NDP and Green MLAs could increase pressure on Fassbender and his boss, Premier Christy Clark, by making connections between education funding and the crime problem in Surrey.

      The same could be said of the premier's decision to roll back taxes for the richest two percent of British Columbians in the last budget. Right wingers love starving the government of resources so the private sector can fill the breach. But the truth is that the private sector is never going to have the wherewithal to devote sufficient resources to stop young adults from shooting each other in the streets of Surrey.

      The federal Liberal party has played a constructive role so far by talking about legalizing marijuana. Only through a system of taxation and regulation will gangsters be marginalized in any area where there's large consumer demand.

      The federal Liberals have also made some strong statements in favour of expanding the number of supervised-injection sites in Canada. That's an obvious first step, given the success of the facility in Vancouver. It's encouraging to see some federal politicians paying attention to scientific research and devising policies based on evidence.

      However, the Liberals don't seem quite as eager as the federal New Democrats to tackle income inequality, which is another key piece of the puzzle.

      Toronto Centre NDP candidate and author Linda McQuaig has written eloquently on this topic and her solutions are more comprehensive than those advanced by her rival, Liberal MP and former journalist Chrystia Freeland.

      For now, media outlets are mostly focusing on the bad guys in Surrey, which plays into the interests of federal Conservatives who love to talk tough on crime. Perhaps if progressives put more effort into discussing solutions, it could change the tenor of the conversation and yield some positive results.



      Anti Prohibition

      Apr 20, 2015 at 12:13am

      Good piece. Hits all the core points.
      The 'war on drugs' is a political fallacy. Prohibition started the problem, which created a 'need' to escalate. The funds wasted on these failed efforts could be used to prevent the attitudes and situations that create the problem in the first place.
      Kids with support systems don't turn to gang activities, or drugs.
      Kids who are marginalized do.
      Current policies are setting the stage for more of this behaviour in the future.
      Hopefully, the Federal Election will see us begin to make changes.
      Legalizing pot is a good place to start. Tax it, regulate it, and take it out of the control of gangsters.

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      Apr 20, 2015 at 10:17am

      Don’t worry, once these Surrey Gangsters realise the federal conservatives have a “tough on crime” and “do the crime do the time” agenda and really, really mean it, they’ll soon fall into line.
      Never mind the “experts” with their exhaustive studies and “empirical evidence”, what do they know, just socialists with a new world order agenda.
      What’s needed here a black and white worldview with more tough talk and all this will be solved.
      Trust us.
      Oh, and the war on drugs is going great.

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      Apr 20, 2015 at 11:15am

      All good points but the missing link is the oversight and influence of families. Apparently, there is none. If my son or daughter started showing up with cash and cars with no visible source of income (i.e., a job) and was gone from 10 PM to 4 AM every day, I'd sure as hell put two and two together as to what they were up to.

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      Apr 21, 2015 at 1:33am

      Harper removed 600 RCMP officers from their posts across Canada in order to service his Bill C-51 regime. These officers were from towns right across the country thus providing less service in venues that needed the staffing such as Surrey. While the "Yahoo" (country bumpkin) Mayor of Surrey has declared she will get more officers, there just aren't any available. On March 5th Commissioner Paulson expressed his concern about the deployment of his men ( see the video online) and so Harper is supposedly going to provide more funding in today's budget, BUT there is a problem with this. Police officers get better pay and benefits in community police forces than they do in the RCMP.

      As for BC's balanced budget that is a myth. Check with Vaughn Palmer for an accurate accounting of the provincial debt. Don't believe propaganda out of any government.

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