REGINA — Members of the City of Regina's Crime Prevention Advisory Committee received a crash course on gang activity in the city via a presentation Monday from an expert on the topic.
The Regina Police Service Street Gang Unit — made up of one sergeant, six constables and one civilian support person — is charged with monitoring the activity of gangs in the city, reviewing all cases in which there is any sign of gang involvement, working with the Major Crimes Unit on all gang-related homicides, investigating all other serious gang-related files, and targeting any specific significant issues in a more concentrated way, said Sgt. Ron Weir, head of the unit.
"We do have some gangs in our community," Weir noted. "They're not overtaking our city. We're not going to allow them to overtake our city. We're doing everything we can ... But they are out there (and) not just in certain areas ... If the community sees any kind of gang involvement or gang graffiti, they can let us know and we'll see what's going on."
He said Regina's gang problem is similar in scope to that in Saskatoon, but is not comparable to that in bigger cities.
Weir also recalled the history of gangs in Regina. He noted a special unit was formed in 1996 to address the Manitoba Warriors trying to set up a Saskatchewan chapter. Regina didn't have a dedicated gang unit at that point, though the police were aware of Native Syndicate and Indian Posse activity. The unit took an "in-your-face" approach to stop the Manitoba Warriors from setting up in Regina, and then the unit was disbanded. But in 1999, funding was available to establish the predecessor of today's gang unit, so the city has had a gang-focused unit going for about a decade.
"We also have 300-plus other police officers in our department that work with us," he said. "We're very fortunate to have (the number that we have in our unit) because some of the other (police) departments, even (in cities) with more population, don't have as many as we have."
Today, the unit keeps a gang database, which all RPS members can access. Gangs are a problem across Canada, Weir noted, so efforts are being made to connect systems. A province-wide system is now in the works.
"It's a great investigative tool for us, and we certainly need it for court purposes," Weir said of the database. He noted there are national criteria around identifying gang members.
If information from a reliable source identifies an individual connected to a gang, that person will be logged in the database as a gang associate.
Then, if officers notice that individual is hanging around known gang members, that would be a second point logged in the database.
Three points are needed for an individual to be considered a gang member and not just an associate — one of those points must be involvement in a gang-motivated crime. Other criteria can include the subject acknowledging membership in a gang and use of common gang identification or paraphernalia.
Weir estimated there are about 500 to 600 gang members and gang associates in the database for Regina right now.
"That number might be a little elevated, because if you're at a party with these guys, you're an associate. If we come across that party, all those names will be entered," he said.
The Street Gang Unit works closely with an assigned gang prosecutor on gang-related files. The gang database is used frequently in the court system, Weir said. He noted the unit has made presentations to judges. Weir has been qualified to give expert testimony — as such he can provide opinion evidence to show the suspect is living a gang lifestyle, which is easier than proving gang membership. The judge decides whether or not to declare an individual as a gang member.
Weir noted gangs use "tools" like intimidation and violence, making it hard to get victims and witnesses to provide the RPS with official accounts of crimes — though many share with police, off-the-record, the details of what happened.
The Street Gang Unit works with federal and provincial witness-protection programs to help witnesses who do come forward. Witness management involves a lot of time and effort and court proceedings can stretch out for years.
The Street Gang Unit also works closely with Social Services and child protection authorities. Weir displayed many images from the Internet showing gang members and children with firearms or other gang-related paraphernalia. He pointed to one picture in which a high-ranking member of the Native Syndicate had a white bandana on his six-month old baby's head. The baby's uncle responded on Facebook, describing the child as a future NS leader. Weir noted Social Services also will contact the unit about gang activity encountered.
Common gang crimes include drug trafficking, intimidation, home invasions, serious assaults, attempted murders and murders, Weir continued. The majority of gang members are men, though many women are gang associates, he said.
Gangs lure at-risk youth, with recruitment in prisons and out in the community. Many gangs are well-organized in the correctional system; in fact, some came into the province through members transferred to prisons here, he noted.
"There's recruitment going on in our community on a regular basis," he explained. "It's an ongoing issue that we're trying to find ways of curtailing ... (But) it's one of those things that we're never going to be able to stop."
Gangs use graffiti, hand signs, clothing, colours and various other codes to communicate, Weir said. Because Regina is a small community, gangs do not have established territories as in bigger cities, so it is not uncommon to see markings of multiple gangs in one back alley, particularly in core areas.
Social networking websites — like Facebook, bebo and hi5 — are popular with gangs. It is common to see gang signs and firearms in photos on those sites. In one homicide case, the police had a photograph from one of the websites of a suspect brandishing the murder weapon — though police did not have the weapon itself, the photograph helped in getting a conviction. Police monitor the sites "on a constant basis."
Weir pointed out a number of different initiations used by gangs. "Strikers" or prospective gang members, often serve as "gophers," running errands and doing odd jobs. Property or violent crimes can be used as initiations. The initiation that police hear about most often, though, is "receiving minutes" — where someone is beaten for a prescribed period of time. That can also be used as punishment, Weir noted, adding not all gang members are initiated in the same way and some are not initiated at all, especially if a high-ranking family member or friend brings them inside the gang.