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November 6, 2011

Ottawa: The Challenge of Street Gangs

Reuel S. Amdur

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Ottawa has some gangs but does not have a major gang problem, according to Staff Sergeant Mark Patterson. He was one of the speakers at a recent forum on gangs, under the auspices of Crime Prevention Ottawa and the Youth Services Bureau.

Police have counted 434 members or associates of gangs, 38 of whom come from the Montreal area.  95% are male.  The most frequent first contact with the law is at 14 or 15 years old.  While the largest groups are called Crips and Bloods, they are not affiliated with the California gangs of those names.  Unlike the situation in other communities, gangs in Ottawa get along and do business with one another.

There are some general observations about groups that apply beyond Ottawa.  One is that healthy neighborhood cohesion helps to keep gangs out. Another is that people in neighborhoods where gangs are active do not report gang activity.  “Don’t snitch.”  The main reason is fear. Police presence is effective in curtailing gang activity.  One approach to getting around the fear is to set up a Crime Stopper hotline, where people can call in anonymously. 

When a neighborhood has the reputation of being a hotbed of gang activity, people living there may find that employers will be reluctant to hire them.  That reluctance makes it more difficult to get youngsters to stay out of or to leave a gang. 

  1. However, cities that cut funding for such programs undermine the positive effects.

Who are the 13- and 14-year-olds who are potential gang recruits?  They are likely to be smoking cigarettes and/or marihuana, drinking, and bullying others on the playground.  They may, willingly or unwillingly, be “mules” for gang members, running drugs or guns.

Katharine Kelly, a Carleton University sociology professor, said that many of the gang members she studies came from immigrant families.  Many have witnessed violence in civil wars and lost family members to violence before coming to Canada. As well, they often come from troubled homes, experiencing abuse and violence in the home.  Not infrequently, a parent has abandoned the family.  They are youngsters who get into fights and who themselves have been teased and bullied.  Most have a religious connection, but if they attend religious services, religion does not affect their behavior.  Mental health problems are common, usually untreated.  She mentioned post-traumatic stress disorder, for instance.

There is, says Hastings, evidence of success in targeting youth in the gang milieu  and on susceptible youth not yet involved in the justice system.

Kelly pointed to a serious difficulty in getting people to leave gangs: gang activity with drugs, guns, and prostitution is extremely lucrative.  A skilled gang member can pull in an annual six-figure income.  In fact, street gang members can end up with so much money that they have the problem of laundering it.  They sometimes buy or start legitimate businesses as a way of laundering the funds.

Hastings, in parallel, said that getting people to leave gangs is up against the issue of proving alternatives.  The evidence, he said, is that fear of the law is not much of a deterrence to gang membership. 

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