Winnipeg – Three teenagers saunter down the sidewalk in North End Winnipeg, one dragging a bicycle and another carrying a plastic bag. Driving slowly behind them is an unmarked police cruiser with two veteran officers inside.
Brakes lights flash.
“Hey how’s it going?” offers Detective Sergeant Ron Hodgkins, an affable policeman, as he hops from behind the steering wheel.
“What’s in the bag?” asks Sergeant Rick Lobban, a powerful-looking man who gets right down to business.
One boy drops the bike with a sigh and another hands over the bag; inside is a package of chicken destined to become dinner.
With Sgt. Lobban circling around the group, each of the teenagers is coaxed aside by Det.-Sgt. Hodgins and asked his name, age, address and gang affiliation.
The two younger teens – both 17 – wear ball caps and proudly announce their membership in a street gang called the Indian Posse. The third, a year older and perhaps wiser, says he is not involved in gangs.
As the older boy speaks, Sgt. Lobban notes a thin elastic holding his hair into a ponytail and two roughly hewn tattoos: the letters “O.G.” on his shoulder and a “G” with two vertical strokes through it, like a dollar sign, on his biceps.
It seems innocuous stuff, but all three teenagers have just earned themselves an entry in the Winnipeg police Street Gang’s Unit computer data bank of known gang members and associates – an identification that might one day bring them before the courts under new, but untested federal legislation designed to attack Canada’s growing organized crime problem.
The evidence against these boys might easily have been missed.
The two younger boys are wearing red caps, the gang colour of the Winnipeg-based gang. Of course, their admission to being in the Indian Posse helps.
The third boy requires a more experienced eye: the two veteran street cops note the band in his hair is red. the “O.G.” says Sgt. Lobban, stands for “original gangster” and is worn by many veterans street gangsters; the “G” tattoo means “gangster money,” a mark worn by gang members who have obtained cash through robbery.
This all suggests the boy is not being upfront about his gang affiliation, especially
considering he’s with two self-admitted gang members.
“This was one casual encounter on the street and we had two verbal administrations and an association,” says Det.-Sgt. Hodgins.
While these three youngsters in a poor stretch of Winnipeg’s core seem a far cry from traditional face of organized crime – outlaw motorcycle gangs in Quebec, Mafia crime families in Ontario, and Asian Triads in British Columbia – the Crown alleges their gang, and others like them, represent a growing threat that is spreading across the Prairies.
“Street gangs are a definite threat to public safety in the province of Manitoba,” says Vic Toews, Manitoba’s Attorney General.
Such gangs are blamed for Manitoba’s violent crime rate, which crept steadily upwards through the 1990′s – until last year when it dropped to its lowest point in six years.
To meet the perceived threat, the Winnipeg police’s Gang Unit has developed what could one of the most effective new tools in the law enforcement arsenal for fighting gangs: a computer database.
First, however, both the database and the new federal legislation under which it is to be used in court must pass legal muster in an important court battle scheduled to begin next month in a specially constructed $3-million courthouse in Winnipeg to accommodate 33 accused, their lawyers, prosecutors and judge and jury. the defendants are all alleged to be members of a gang called the Manitoba warriors. The trial begins on Sept. 7 and could be one of Canada’s longest ever.
Winnipeg’s North End has a considerable history. An old, working-class neighborhood, it was once home to such legends as Monte Hall, the famous game show host, and Burton Cummings, the chart-topping musician. Today, however, small patches of the wide streets and narrow alleys that criss-cross each other look like pared-down scenes from a war zone.
“The neighborhood bottomed out a few years ago,” says Det-Sgt. Hodgkins.
“Here is where we have a large drug-dealing problem. They move into a rental property and sell crack out of it until it gets raided and busted; then it’s just pack up and move on,” says Det-Sgt. Hodgins.
It is here that “flaps” sell for $20 – the sale of “flaps” (A quarter gram of cocaine wrapped up in an old lottery ticket) is big business for the more established gangs, police says.
Graffiti – sometimes in letters as tall as a man – adorn some homes and businesses, proclaiming turf around it belongs to a specific gang.
“Graffiti is an indicator of an area they’re active in,” says Det.-Sgt. Hodgins, as he drives down an alley well-marked with gangland art.
Sometimes the message is simple and blunt, other times it takes considerable decoding.
“INF” stands for “In Full Effect” and usually follows a gang name, meaning that gang dominates this turf, says Sgt. Lobban. “PK” stands for “Posse Killers,” the rivals of the Indian Posse.
“187″ seems innocent enough, but it is the criminal code section for homicide in California, and is used as a death threat among gangs, who take much of their dress and manners from their American cousins.
Police monitor graffiti closely for clues as to gang territory, emerging rivalries and which gangs are growing.
The emergence of rival street gangs across the prairies has led, police to the prairies has led, police say, to drug sales, stabbings, home invasions, robbery, machete attacks, prostitution and murder.
“When you have street gang members banding together, you have to add the bravado factor to crime. they want d the bravado factor to crime. To prove themselves hey want to prove themselves. Because they have an audience, they want to do something a little more ballsy than when they are alone.” says Sgt. Lobban.
Street gangs started to make their dark presence felt in Winnipeg in the late 1980′s. The Overlords was the first gang of any note and it soon splintered into rival factions and it soon splintered into rival factions. Those factions today form several of the 26 gangs in Winnipeg tracked today by police.
According to the Street Gang Unit’s database, these gangs incorporate 1,548 identified active gang members and 826 inactive members.
“It was formerly seen as a youth gang problem but it was obvious people involved in street gangs at the age of 12 and 13 weren’t just leaving gangs because they turned 18,” says Sgt. Lobban.
The oldest known member of a Winnipeg gang is 56. Many others are in their 30′s. There are even parents and children who are all members of the same gang.
“It is officially an issue that involves many gang members, however, I’d say about 85% of the street gang members are aboriginal,” says Mr. Toews.
There are four primary gangs.
The Indian Posse is the largest gang. There are 505 active and inactive IP members in the police database. The group often invokes aboriginal culture in their activities.
Deuce is a younger gang and is the fastest-growing and most multicultural. There are 502 active and 75 inactive Deuce members in the database.
“They tend to attract a younger group who are attracted to the mystique from the heavy television and movie influence,” says Sgt. Lobban.
Deuce members closely mimic the large gangs in Los Angeles in dress, speech and manners; with bandanas around their head and caps perched on top, members throw awkward gang signs with their fingers in a culture ripped right from popular American gang movies such as ‘Colours’.
“Talking to some of the Deuce you would swear you’re in South Central L.A.,” Sgt. Lobban.
The Native Syndicate has 35 active and 19 inactive members in the police database. The gang mimics an Italian Mafia family cribbed from The Godfather movie, with a boss, an underboss and a consigliere as the three ranking positions.
The NS is composed almost entirely of adults and is believed to have been formed by convicts when in prison.
The Manitoba Warriors closely resembles an outlaw motorcycle gang in its structure and use of logos on the backs of their vests and jackets. The gang has a president, vice-president and sergeant-at-arms, and would-be members must serve an apprenticeship, called “striking,” just as in bike gang culture.
The Manitoba Warriors recorded membership of 327 active and 143 inactive are almost all adults.
“The Warriors are an older gang and more oriented towards day-to-day business rather than running around tagging their gang name on everything in sight,” says Sgt. Lobban.
The gangs are not confined to Winnipeg.
Through recruitment in other cities and in prisons, the gangs are spreading their tentacles across the prairies and into Ontario.
When the Manitoba Warriors – wearing gang colours, T-shirts emblazoned with the gang name, and baseball caps – started recruiting in Regina, police there thought a new baseball team had come to town. Now a branch called the Saskatchewan Warriors seems to inhabit both Regina and Saskatoon, says Sergeant Greg McKinnon of the Regina police.
He believes the Warriors, Native Syndicate and Indian Posse are all in Saskatchewan, comprising some of the estimated 250 members and associates of street gangs in Regina.
“One gang being there will create four others,” Sgt. McKinnon laments.
He and a team from the Regina police spent a week with the Winnipeg Street Gang Unit this summer to learn how best to stem the growth.
“We want to start off on the right foot and not make any mistakes. We’re here to learn,” he says.
There is also growing concern over emerging native gangs in Edmonton, Calgary and Brandon.
“This is not simply a Winnipeg problem, this is not just a Manitoba problem. This is a problem that is found all over the Prairie provinces and as Manitoba gets tougher and tougher on gang activity, what we are finding is that the gangs are simply setting up elsewhere,” says Mr. Toews.
When gang warfare was threatening to surge out of control in Winnipeg, all levels of governments looked for a new strategy.
“It wasn’t enough to rely on the federal Criminal Code, or the municipal police,” said Mr. Toews. “We felt as a provincial government, we should step in in a much more active way.”
Another 40 extra police officers were hired in Winnipeg in 1995, and the Street Gang Unit, featuring 15 officers was formed.
“The mandate here is for high visibility, in-your-face policing,” says Sgt. Lobban, the unit’s head.
The mandate accounts for the team’s military-style uniforms – with dark blue T-shirts, bearing the unit’s name in bright yellow letter’s, that are pulled over bullet proof vests.
“The unit is project-oriented and raid-oriented. We target an area where we can make an impact.”
Says Mr. Toews: “Where they are white gangsters or aboriginal gangsters, I make no distinction – I don’t want them on the street. I make no apologies about what people sometimes say about our tough line in terms of attacking the gang problem. For the hardened, violent criminal, I say they need to be incarcerated.”
It is a tactic that has put 385 gang members currently behind bars in provincial jails. Many more are in federal prisons.
Mr. Toews is looking to increase that pressure and is expecting great things from two very new items in Canadian law enforcement arsenal: the federal anti-gang legislation and the Street Gang Unit’s creative use of computers.
In the war against gangsters quick to draw machetes and shoot from passing cars, the computer might seem a rather lame weapon.
If prosecutors are right, however, the modest database in the unit’s back office could prove to be one of the most effective tools for putting gang members behind bars.
“The gang database is not filled with intelligence briefs, but factual, defendable information,” says Sgt. Lobban.
“Information that [police officers] can be called to testify on in court. When an officer stops an individual, any tattoos, gang colours, associations with gang members – it can all be entered into the database.”
The difference between this database and other police compendiums of information is that each entry relates to a specific person found by a named officer on a specific date and time to have met strict criteria that indicate gang membership. Such as the three youth Sgt. Lobban and Det.-Sgt. Hodgins stopped with the bag of chicken.
Not long after the database was started the unit launched an expansive operation probing suspected cocaine sales out of hotels in the city’s core. After a year of undercover and surveillance operations, police were ready to make arrests for alleged narcotics and weapons offences.
Police wanted to know if they could also lay charges against the alleged gang members under the new anti-gang legislation, says Clyde Bond, senior counsel for the federal
Department of Justice in Winnipeg.
Passed in April 1997, Section 467.1 of the Criminal Code allows for a maximum 14-year sentence for participation in, or substantially contributing to, the activities of a criminal organization.
“The police came to me because it was a drug operation and asked if they could charge them under the new legislation. I sent them away with several questions that I assumed they would not be able to answer,” says Mr. Bond.
“Frankly, I didn’t think there was a hope of it, but, lo and behold, they could.”
Police realized that in the growing gang database was reasonable and potentially provable evidence that certain individuals were members of a criminal gang.
“The database really started as a place to gather information and developed into something far more sophisticated. I don’t think anyone fully realized how valuable it would be as evidence,” says Mr. Bond.
Interest in the database is spreading, with inquiries about it coming from police across Canada.
“The database is crucial for us,” says Det.-Sgt. Hodgins. “I think databases are cutting-edge in the fight against street gangs. We’ve shared a lot of our experiences with other departments.”
“But the court case up will be the big test.”
It is a test being watched closely by lawyers, police officials and Department of Justice officials in Ottawa and may help decide how we fight against organized crime in a country
that values personal freedom so highly.
Says Mr. Toews: “I’m not proud of the fact that we have more crime than I want in the province. I am very pleased, however, that our officers are sharing our experiences.”