The Nature of Canadian Urban Gangs and their use of Firearms: A Review of the Literature and Police Survey
Police are often asked to describe characteristics of the "average gang" , or cite statistics in regard to the "national trend" on some aspect of gang activities, such as firearms use. The problem with these types of questions is that there is no country-wide "average" or "trend" . Gang characteristics and activities are very region and city specific. To make matters even more complicated, within a city, the diversity of gangs prevents us from capturing single measures of central tendencies.
Some of the police departments surveyed could not provide responses for the number of urban gangs, or the estimated number of members. Particularly in the larger jurisdictions as these values change on a daily basis.
The surveys that were sent to the police provided the following definition of "urban gangs/street gangs" :
Individuals within an urban area who formally or informally affiliate themselves with a particular common group and express themselves as members by antisocial behaviour through the commission of offences. It does not include organised crime gangs.
The information provided here is summarized from police responses to the survey and is intended to provide a general snapshot of the nature of urban gangs and their activities. Much of this information is common between cities, although there are regionally unique features as well. One of the common features between the urban gangs in the six cities is that the primary focus of activity involves drugs. Crimes committed for drug-related reasons include property offences, robbery, assault, and homicide. However, this is not to infer that all of these offences committed throughout the country are attributable to urban gangs.
Although there has been organized crime and urban gang activity across the city, Vancouver has two main areas that have major problems with gangs: the Eastside where more drug offences tend to occur, and the downtown core, where the more serious violence is typically perpetrated. Despite these concentrations, it appears that the urban gangs of Vancouver are not territorial, but rather identify themselves along ethnic and crime specialization lines rather than geographic boundaries. Specifically, more than one gang may operate in the same geographical location but possibly due to the type of crimes being committed or the ethnic groups they belong to, disputes over territory are not common.
The majority of the urban gangs in Vancouver can be identified by ethnic composition. Predominantly, these are Asian, Indo (East Indian), and Native Canadian (Aboriginal) gangs. Of the Asian urban gangs in operation, the majority are linked to organized crime. Gang members are exclusively male and range in age from approximately 12 years to adulthood. Urban gang activity has ranged from simple mischief and drug distribution, to assaults and less common, homicide. Criminal activity, including violence is focused on economic gain (i.e., is business related). The main criminal activities of the Asian urban gangs tend to be the production of drugs, drug distribution, and trafficking.
The Indo gangs of Vancouver are exclusively male. Gang membership appears to be tied to an antisocial expression of caste or clan, meaning that these gangs can be subdivided by Indo-ethnic origins. Of the different ethnic categories of urban gangs in Vancouver, the Indo gangs appear to engage in violent crime more frequently than the other urban gangs particularly in regard to shootings. Offences, insults, and disrespect toward an Indo gang can elicit a violent response in retaliation, and can result in violence between gangs. Typical offences committed by these gangs are drug distribution, fraud and assault. While criminal activity involves economic gain, the predominance of violent crime is committed between Indo gangs of different cultural backgrounds.
Membership in Native Canadian urban gangs is predominately made up of youth who have moved away from reservations. These youth tend to have had difficulty in establishing pro-social associations and seem to have found kinship among gang members. Males tend to have the larger representation, with relatively fewer female members. It appears that the majority of Native gangs might be more dynamic and less organized than some of the other ethnic-exclusive gangs, as members tend to relocate more frequently. These gangs can be responsible for a wide range of offences that include property crimes and assault. Most notable among their activities is the recruitment of adolescent Aboriginal females into prostitution.
There appear to be few exclusively Caucasian urban gangs in the Vancouver area. Caucasians who are involved in urban gangs tend to be part of other, more ethnically diverse gangs. One principle street gang, the United Nations, has members who come from various ethnic backgrounds. It was reported that they operate for economic reasons only, specializing in the importation and exportation of drugs and illegal firearms but members have been associated with a range of offences including mischief, property offences, and violent offences including assaults and homicide. Generally, the violent offences tend to be committed against other gang members, and can be directly related to competition in the business of illegal exportation. This gang is likely the most organized of the Vancouver urban gangs even though it formed less than two years ago (around 2004). It appears that this gang holds high status and even has its own clothing line with its name prominently displayed on garments.
Generally, Vancouver urban gang members tend to carry knives but not guns. However, they seem to have access to guns and appear to use them, typically for retaliation and intimidation. Police interviews suggest there were comparatively few incidents of gang violence involving firearms, but this may be changing: Once guns were introduced into the subculture by the criminal element, most urban gangs appear to have adjusted to the change in order to keep abreast of competitive gangs.
Based on research from other jurisdictions and a comprehensive review of their own policy, practice and past results, the Vancouver police department is in the process of redesigning their approach to dealing with gangs and guns in the community. The current strategic planning involves enhanced intelligence gathering and communication; examining best practice models of targeting the environment, the person, and the behaviour; and a thorough review of programs and operations in other jurisdictions. Among the specific strategic actions stemming from the plan are recommendations for specialized intelligence staff (e.g., gun investigators); methods to ensure consistent and informed processing of offenders through the justice system; engaging the community particularly in regard to gang membership exit strategies; and to examine the impact of changes in public policy.
As part of their review, the Vancouver police have pulled offence data from the last ten years and identified specific offences involving gang members. These data will be used as benchmarks to assess the effects of new programs and operations.
According to the Regina Police, there are five urban gangs operating within the city of Regina. These are the Native Syndicate, Indian Posse, Crips, Saskatchewan Warriors, and Redd Alert. The largest, the Native Syndicate is made up of approximately 200 members, ranging in age from 17 to 35 years. There are approximately 10 to 20 females, and all members are of Aboriginal decent. The next largest is the Indian Posse, which is comprised of approximately 75 males and a few females, exclusively Aboriginal ranging from 17 to 35 years of age. The Crips is made up of approximately 50 members, including about a dozen females, with an age range of 12 to 17 years, and are also all of Aboriginal decent.
There is an additional street gang that appears sporadically in Regina called the Crazy Dragons. This group is linked to Asian organized crime groups although the membership is predominately Caucasian. When active in the city, this gang uses violence and intimidation in attempts to gain an exclusive market for the street level distribution of drugs. Through intelligence and targeted efforts, Regina police have been able to prevent this gang from establishing itself in the community.
The largest concentration of urban gangs is within low socioeconomic/high unemployment areas of the city which are predominately Aboriginal neighbourhoods. Drug trafficking and the violence surrounding control of territory seems to be ongoing. Intimidation of victims and witnesses has become a serious problem. In the last two years, police have investigated one gang-related homicide and several gang-related attempted murders involving firearms as well as several drive-by shootings. These incidents were thought to be related to drug activities. Police have also seized body armour on several occasions in the past two years.
Despite the disputes over territory, certain gangs have been known to cooperate on short-term joint criminal ventures such as drug trafficking. There appears to be no relationship between the urban gangs and outlaw motorcycle gangs, but there is evidence to suggest that some of the urban gangs have links to Asian organized crime groups and other organized crime groups, particularly in terms of drug supplies.
As in other Canadian cities, the Regina urban gangs seem to have found financial gain in criminal activity and power in numbers, which supports intimidation and violence. The offences committed by gang members range from property offences, to drug trafficking, to assaults with weapons and homicide. It is estimated that approximately 60% of the members carry some type of weapon (knives, brass knuckles). Although the majority of urban gang members do not carry firearms in their day to day lives, there have been some incidents where individuals who appear to have a gang affiliation have been found in possession of firearms. In Saskatchewan sawed-off shot guns and rifles are the firearms of choice. These firearms are readily available and are very difficult to trace as the majority are unregistered. However, there is some evidence to indicate that Regina urban gangs also have access to handguns.
Urban gang issues in Regina began to surface in 1996. Since 1998, the Regina Police Service has targeted gang leaders, a project that has resulted in multiple convictions and incarcerations. This ongoing process is thought to have contributed to the inability of any one gang maintaining predominance within the city.
In addition to their work within a dedicated Gang Unit and resources provided through the Cultural Relations Units and School Resource officers, the Regina Police service in partnership with community agencies, Saskatchewan Corrections and Public Safety and Saskatchewan Learning, are developing an initiative aimed at gang prevention/intervention in Regina′s inner city. The primary goal is to educate the public to help prevent the development of gang connections; encourage vulnerable youth to access appropriate services and to support safety and exit strategies. The initiative is in two phases: Phase one involves a review of gang-related publications and focus groups with service providers, school teachers and administrators, youth who are gang members and those who are at risk of gang membership, and families/caregivers. The information gathered will be used in the production of two videos with the purpose of sharing the findings with the wider community. Phase two involves designing, developing and disseminating a comprehensive education and communications package tailored to each target population.
Support materials will be presented to youth in grades four to six through the school system and supplementary materials will be offered to parents and professionals. Phase one is scheduled for completion in October 2006 and phase two is scheduled for completion in March 2007. It is expected that the comprehensive assessment of the specific needs and recommendations of the community and the youth involved in street gangs will aid in implementation of the appropriate strategies that will be most beneficial.
The number of urban gangs in the Winnipeg area has fluctuated; however, there are three principle gangs currently operating. These are the Manitoba Warriors, the Indian Posse, and the Duce. The members of these gangs are exclusively Aboriginal and predominately male. There are multiple splinter groups, gangs associated with one of the three and at least one splinter group that is exclusively female. There is also one urban gang that is comprised of members from various ethnic backgrounds called the Mad Cow gang. The number of individuals involved in Winnipeg′s urban gangs cannot be estimated. This is due to the tendency to move in and out of gangs, and high mobility between different jurisdictions.
While the overall number involved in urban gangs in Winnipeg is difficult to assess, general characteristics can be provided. There appears to be a wide age range of members in Winnipeg urban gangs; from as young as 11 years old to 50 or older. Most members tend to originate from low socioeconomic areas of the city, or move to these areas from outside the jurisdiction. New members are usually unsupervised and socially disadvantaged youth recruited from the city core. For these youth, gang membership may offer approval, acceptance, status, and protection. Members of the older, more established gangs often wear gang colours and can have gang-specific tattoos on their chest, neck or arms.
As seen in other Canadian cities, the urban gangs in Winnipeg may be responsible for a wide range of crime from property offences to drug trafficking, home invasions and homicide. "Tagging" is common as members mark their territory with gang-specific graffiti. There is ongoing competition between different gangs over territory, which can erupt into gang fights including stabbings and shootings. It is suspected that the newer gangs may be responsible for a substantial number of property offences, home invasions, and assaults. These younger gang members appear to have an attitude of self-entitlement and feel justified in their actions. The older urban gangs are more organized and tend to engage more in the importation and distribution of drugs. In terms of weapons, it was reported that many individuals carry a weapon, usually a knife, and although few carry firearms in their day to day activities, members appear to have access to firearms.
The Winnipeg police service has a Cultural Diversity program that builds partnerships between ethnic groups and the police services which aids in dealing with urban gangs. Given the high number of Aboriginal youth among the street gang members in Winnipeg, and that these youth often arrive in the city from reserves, the Cultural Diversity program extends beyond the City of Winnipeg to outlying areas. A full-time dedicated Aboriginal liaison officer travels out to the reserves and establishes relationships with community partners and individuals. The officer gives presentations to youth on career and life choices. The pros and cons of gangs and alternatives to joining gangs are discussed from the point of view of the youth, the family, the community, and the police.
These presentations include material on gang awareness and mentoring programs that are available through the police and community services. Working as part of a team with schools and community groups, the liaison officer encourages youth to be proactive and consider the positive and negative aspects of their choices.
In addition to traditional intelligence methods, the Toronto police monitor gang activity by using a computerized data base that was specifically designed to store information on individuals associated with gangs. The data base is updated as new information becomes available, and search functions permit easy access to individual or group reports. It includes data concerning known gang members and affiliates, defined by meeting two of the seven criteria for gang involvement, as well as individuals who are considered "at risk" of becoming a member or affiliate, defined by meeting only one criterion. The criteria for gang involvement are:
- direct/indirect involvement in gang activity;
- information from a reliable source;
- observed association with known members;
- symbolic gang identifiers;
- a court finding; or
- physical evidence.
At the time of the survey (Spring 2006), 83 street gangs were recorded in the Toronto police database. However, due to the fluid nature of street gangs, many of which lack structure/organization seen in other organized crime groups, it is difficult to accurately determine the exact number of street gangs at any given time. Furthermore, two of the most violent gangs have recently been disrupted because their leaders are incarcerated and awaiting trial after being arrested in police gang-targeted projects.
There were over 3,000 individuals recorded in the gang data base, but a number of these, (approximately 50%) were classified as "at risk" individuals, not gang members or affiliates. In urban gangs, the number of members and associates ranged from just a few individuals to approximately 100. Less than ten percent of these individuals were female.
There were less than ten youth under the age of 15, and less than 50 youth who were under 16 in the data base. Most urban gang members and affiliates were in their early 20s and there were several over 40 years of age. In terms of ethnic composition, the commonality within many urban gangs was more neighbourhood-based than ethnically-based. In several cases, the gang name referred to the community or a specific street. In other cases, members live outside of the city itself, but continued to operate within the city and surrounding area. A current trend involves Toronto area street gang members traveling on a day to day basis to smaller cities and towns to sell drugs. Gang members appear to prefer relatively close-by "university towns" such as Kingston or Waterloo.
Some of the urban gangs have members who identify themselves by wearing certain colours, clothing, or symbolic markings. They might engage in tagging in order to announce their presence in an area both as a statement of bravado and to warn other urban gangs to stay away. Other urban gangs, particularly the more well-established, tend not to advertise their presence by tagging but might wear symbolic jewellery or tattoos.
Generally, urban gangs are territorial and gang wars are not uncommon. However, urban gangs who compete over territory have been seen to collaborate from time to time, but this cooperation is often short lived. Attempts to eliminate competitors or settle differences can involve shootings. The basis for the shootings often involves "turf" disrespect or drug activity. This is also true for the majority of other crimes committed by urban gangs that can include property offences, drug distribution/trafficking, robberies, home invasions, assaults, and homicides. The principle drugs involved are cocaine, crack cocaine, and marijuana.
In terms of weapons, members generally have access to knives and home made weapons and many carry these. It seems that few members carry firearms unless there is a planned use, but most members appear to have access to firearms. These include automatic and semi-automatic handguns. It was reported that a portion of these weapons are taken from home burglaries and others are attained from more organized criminal groups.
The Toronto Police have invested in multiple programs to deal with prevention and intervention. In addition to interactive school and community presentations, the department is highly active in direct intervention programs. One of these programs is called "Troop", in which youth who are aged 12 to 18 are paired with an officer and go on a nature retreat trip. This provides positive role-modeling as well as fostering pro-social relationships. A new program that will began in 2006 involves youth who are identified as at-risk for gang membership or affiliation. One hundred of these youth will be hired during the summer by the department and will work with the police on a variety of tasks. It is expected that this program will reinforce pro-social development and give the youth the benefits of working in the community while earning money. These programs are designed to work with the individual. One measure of success will be when that individual is no longer at risk of becoming a street gang member or affiliate.
In addition to targeting individuals, at risk communities also receive special attention. A new prevention and intervention program is the Toronto Antiviolence Intervention Strategy (TAVIS). Three teams of eighteen police officers are directly involved in this program. Police intelligence will identify a specific community and a patrol of these specialized officers create a highly visible presence in that community. It is expected that urban gang activity in these areas will be reduced.
In November of 2005, the Toronto police participated in a gun amnesty program. The firearms that were surrendered through the program were mostly older weapons from private owners and had not been used in crime. However, they represent a reduction in the number of guns that could be made available to criminals by theft.
In Montreal, there are approximately 25 known street gangs with an estimated membership of 1,250. Approximately 80% of urban gang members attend school. By keeping a presence in the schools, these gangs have an opportunity to recruit new members and monitor recruiting attempts by other gangs. The recruiting methods can be subtle and include demonstrating the material wealth associated with urban gang membership (e.g., wearing high fashion clothing or jewellery, carrying expensive technology, or inviting youth to indulgent parties) thereby creating interest and desire. Being a student also allows convenient and legitimate access to populations of youth who may also be targeted for drug sales.
Most of the Montreal street gangs are made up of Haitian and Jamaican youth, and there are recent indications that Latino groups may also be forming. Other groups are of mixed ethnic backgrounds. These gangs tend to be territorial but some have been know to cooperate on a short term basis for a criminal venture. It appears that ethnicity itself is not a major factor in street gang formation, but rather common neighbourhoods, backgrounds of poverty and social exclusion seem to be more relevant.
Recruiting can be done in several ways, including what is essentially advertising on the Internet. Some urban gangs have their own web sites with technology and marketing tools that can rival those of legitimate organizations. There have also been links between some urban gangs and popular music. Posters and CD covers display very provocative images clearly tied to gang life. The marketing campaign can effectively portray urban gang membership as cool, glamorous and financially rewarding.
Some urban gang members wear specific colours associated with a particular gang, others have tattoos unique to certain gangs, while many use hand signals or code of some kind.
Street gang members have committed a variety of offences, including property offences, drug trafficking and importation, fraud, robberies, assaults with weapons, and homicide. The main type of crime is the importation of drugs which involve cocaine, crack cocaine and marijuana. But there is an indication that chemicals are also being imported for the creation of psychotropic drugs. Some members carry knives or machetes, but most of the fatalities involving street gang members have been caused by shootings. Despite the fatalities, there does not appear to be large numbers of guns in the streets. Firearms that have been seized include handguns and sawed off shotguns. These street gang members do not appear to compete over having the latest or most impressive firearms. It was reported that the majority of firearms used appear to have been obtained by purchasing illegal imports from Aboriginal reservations or by importing directly from the United States. Some firearms have been traced back to burglaries of gun stores or private homes.
Urban gangs in Montreal have been actively involved with outlaw motorcycle gangs, traditional organized crime groups and Asian crime organizations. These street gangs can be involved with two or all three of these groups simultaneously in different criminal ventures. Examples of the types of offences include drug distribution and the procurement of new prostitutes for the sex trade. As seen in other cities, street gangs in Montreal appear to be coming more organized, more structured and sophisticated in business operations especially in relation to marketing and technology.
The Montreal Police service sees urban gangs as not just a police problem, but a community problem. They take a systemic approach to all facets within urban gang programs. Members from all departments are represented on a gang committee that has established a four-prong strategy to deal with urban gangs. Based on empirical research from Montreal and from other cities, this strategy involves criminal activity repression; street gang prevention; effective communication within the police department and between police and the community; and on-going internal research. Each department has a plan of action that is based on the four-pronged strategy, and these plans are assessed quantitatively or qualitatively. For example, surveying members of the community about their feeling of safety before and after a program has been established is one method of assessing the effect of programs.
An example of one of Montreal′s prevention programs is outreach support for parents. Operating in Haitian communities and in partnership with the local churches, police present information programs to parents. Recognizing that parents may not be able to access presentations during weekdays, these programs are scheduled for weekends. The material includes information on how to recognize signs of street gang activity in one’s own child, where intervention and support are offered, and how to access these services. In addition to informing parents, these meetings foster communication within the community and between its members and the police.
Compared to other cities in Canada, Halifax reported that it has only recently begun experiencing problems with urban gangs. The gangs in this area appear to have started on a small scale but the nature and violence of the offences they are involved seems to have increased. Five urban gangs have been identified by police in Halifax. Three of the gangs, the Northend Dartmouth Gang, Murda Squad, and Woodside Gang, were more prevalent, G-Lock, and Gaston Road to a lesser extent. There were five additional smaller groups with less cohesion. The membership is typically made up of individuals who live in lower income neighbourhoods, or public housing communities. Children as young as 12 years old have been identified as members of the street gangs or smaller groups, and approximately 40% of the members attend school.
The Northend Dartmouth Gang has between 10 and 15 members identified, with numerous associates. The members are generally African-Canadian males and tend to range in age from 16 to 28. These gang members wear specific colours, usually bandanas and tee shirts. They tend to be involved in more serious offences such as break and entering, motor vehicle thefts, thefts/possession of stolen property, drugs possession and trafficking, prostitution and more violent types of offences such as robbery, threats, sexual assault, and assault.
The Murda Squad has between 10 and 15 identified members and numerous associates. While the gender make-up is mostly male, there are some female members. Members tend to be either African-Canadian or Caucasian. They often wear specific coloured bandanas and tee shirts or sweatshirts. They also tend to use hand signs for communication. It is believed that prospective members must endure a group assault as part of initiation test. If the initiate does not "squeal" he is admitted to the gang. Offences typically committed by this gang include mischief, theft, robbery, weapons offences, trafficking, threats, and assault.
The Woodside gang emerged in 2002, and currently has less than ten identified members, with numerous associates. The members are male and appear to range in age from 14 to 18 years and tend to be either African-Canadian or Caucasian. They do not wear any type of clothing that would identity them as belonging to a gang. These youth are involved in various serious offences including break and enter, auto thefts, street level and commercial robberies, weapons offences and assaults. The offences can be violent, using such weapons as sticks, bats, hammers, and knives. One of the street gangs has ties to a larger more organized criminal group and some members are involved in procurement and street-level drug distribution.
These gangs tend to use intimidation by threatening and harassing victims and seem to have instilled fear within the community. Victims tend to be reluctant to testify for fear of retribution. Knives are most commonly seen and while gang members have made threats in reference to guns and shootings, guns have not been seen.
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