So what do you do for a gang kid in Winnipeg who wants to get out of a street gang?
The answer is simple, you enrol him or her in the gang exit strategy program.
The only problem is, the Murder, Violent Crime, Robbery & Gang capital of Canada doesn’t really have a gang exit strategy program. That may change if the one hundred and twenty (120) or so people I spent the day with yesterday get their way. These ambitious people were part of a day long Gang Forum focused on establishing a program geared towards helping street gang members extricate themselves from the dangers of gang life.
The forum was organized by members of GAIN (Gang Action Interagency Network), a group of hard-working committed individuals determined to have a positive impact on the criminal landscape in the City of Winnipeg.
As I surveyed the crowd, I conservatively estimated that upwards of sixty-five (65) assorted agencies were present and ready to take part in the day long brain storming sessions. As one of the few, (if not only), non-agency affiliated, apolitical attendees, I was in a great place to assess the progress and potential of this exercise.
The forum was opened by MLA Kevin Chief with an inspirational key-note address spoken from the heart. Mr Chief, eloquently shared his thoughts on issues that contribute to gang membership, none the least of which is poverty. “Poverty takes away choices,” he said after taking the group on a personal journey that punctuated his point. WPS Superintendent Danny Smyth also addressed the crowd mirroring the positive themes that preceded him.
After the key-note speakers, the floor was yielded to gang researcher Matt Fast, a young man charged with the responsibility of compiling a report to assist GAIN members develop gang exit strategy initiatives and actionable programs. The causes of gang membership were not in dispute. Kids join gangs because they have needs that aren’t being fulfilled; social needs, the need for self-esteem, love, a sense of belonging, opportunity, identity, security and employment.
Despite the fact Fasts’ research is ongoing, he managed to identify three (3) common themes for forum attendees to explore in order to develop a gang exit strategy. These themes included the need to discuss issues related to identity & belonging, expanded programs and healing.
As forum attendees joined the conversation, I was quickly alerted to the potential for the group to be sidetracked by divisive rhetoric clearly designed to split the room along distinct racial lines. Ironically, I happened to be sitting beside two former hard-core gang members, one Aboriginal, the other a Caucasian kid on parole who recently got out of prison after doing a long stint in Stony Mountain Penitentiary. As the conversation continued along this vein, I could sense the young man was becoming disenfranchised. This was a guy who went into prison a gang member and wanted to come out a “citizen”. How sad I thought, weren’t we supposed to be here for guys exactly like him? I had been under the impression the gang forum was all about developing a gang exit strategy for all gang members; White, Black, Aboriginal, Asian or any other flavour for that matter.
I have to give credit to the forum facilitators, they did a commendable job getting the attendees back on track and not biting on the controversial issues being advanced like Idle no More or Colonialism. This was simply not the time or the place for that conversation. As one facilitator put it, “We can’t play the long game and ignore the short game.” It was a refreshing perspective.
Long before the discussion started I compiled a list of seven (7) essential components that I believed were required for a successful gang exit strategy. I compiled this list based on twenty-six (26) years of Law Enforcement experience which included working assignments in Organized Crime (including street gangs) and the Homicide Unit where I worked on dozens of gang related murders over the course of an eight (8) year period. I was interested to see if the professionals in the room would come up with a similar list. The components I identified were:
- Access to 24 /7 crisis shelters
- Drug / Alcohol addiction treatment
- Mental Health / Emotional Healing interface
- Enduring Social Services interface
- Child & Family Services interface
- Manitoba Justice interface
- Law Enforcement interface
In my experience, gang members may want to exit gangs for any number of reasons which could include:
- Self initiated – wants out, tired of the danger, violence and betrayal
- Rolled out – turned on by gang, accused of being a rat, “rolled” or “beaten” out of the gang
- Incarcerated Offenders – getting out of jail, want out of gang life
- Extrication – initiated by Police for a variety of reasons ie: gang related murder witness
For those who aren’t aware, getting out of a gang can be an extremely dangerous proposition for a gang member. That danger can extend to the gang members children, brothers, sisters, parents, grandparents, cousins or even his girlfriend and her family.
In June of 2008, high-ranking Indian Posse gang member Sid Letandre was sitting at home with his wife and children when he heard a knock on his door. When he answered it, he saw one of his close friends and “brothers” from the gang standing in the doorway. After inviting his “bro” into his house, Sid turned his back to lead the way. That’s when he would learn his good friend had been sent to his house on a mission to kill him. Kill him in front of his wife and children no less. The first shot hit Sid directly in the back and dropped him immediately. The second shot was execution style to the back of his head. As Letandre lay critically injured on the floor, his executioner assumed he was dying or near death and walked out the door.
Miraculously, Sid survived and recovered from the shooting only to learn the bullet in his back severed his spinal cord. Sid Letandre will never walk again. His only crime was trying to get out of the Indian Posse street gang. His sentence, death – commuted to a life sentence bound to the confines of a wheelchair.
After spending the day deliberating with these motivated, bright, caring people, I was encouraged when they managed to spend most of the day focusing on all seven gang exit strategy components I previously identified. They have a tough, complex job ahead of them but I believe they have the right combination of motivation and business savvy required to get the job done. If they can keep their eyes on the prize and forget about the racial divide and interagency rivalries, that job will be much easier.
Does the City of Winnipeg need a gang exit strategy?
Of course it does.
The only question left is, will there be enough political will and funding to help the worker bees get the job done.
Mike McIntyre – Winnipeg Free Press: Ten Year Term for Shooting Ex- Gangster
The Police Insider – Winnipeg Gang Members, Exit Stage Right