Quest for fame move gang wars from back alleys into the open

Stephanie Levitz 

OTTAWA – Toronto police called the shooter who opened fire in a downtown mall Saturday “one idiot with a gun.”

But some gang experts argue public shootings like the one at the Eaton Centre that left one man dead and several other people wounded are part of an effort by gang leaders to make themselves look like anything but idiots.

Gangs are increasingly taking their fights public to gain fame and notoriety, said Const. Doug Spencer, a Vancouver transit police officer who works with the city’s Odd Squad Productions Society on crime prevention.

Public shootings are designed to send a message, Spencer said.

“They say if they’ll do it there, they’ll do it anywhere, you don’t want to mess with those guys, they’re crazy, and that’s the reputation they want.”

Spencer said Vancouver-area police began noticing a change in gang activity about three or four years ago when fights that used to be waged in back alleys suddenly burst onto public streets.

In 2007, six people were killed at a Surrey, B.C., apartment. Four had criminal connections, but two were innocents in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Since then, B.C. police have been called to shootings outside high-end restaurants, a casino and last month, outside a recreation centre in Port Moody, B.C.

Spencer contends the media attention given the shootings fuels the egos of gang members.

“They don’t have to go on Facebook or the Internet to get their reputation out there, it’s out there now,” he said.

“They love it, they love the attention. It builds up their reputation so guys won’t screw around with them.”

Another expert who recently spent time interviewing jailed gang members says many of the older ones complain about there no longer being any code of conduct.

Michael Chettleburgh says the rules gang members operated by in the 1980s and 90s that, for example, forbade selling drugs to kids or involving civilians in their business, have vanished.

“It’s kind of like the gang business has met the ‘me’ generation,” he said.

“There’s no empathy, no morals, no care in the world, it’s just about them.”

Toronto police said Sunday that they think they know the identity of the Eaton Centre gunman, and that the man he killed was known to have gang affiliations.

The shooting recalled dark memories of the 2005 Boxing Day shootout between gang members that left 15-year-old Jane Creba dead and six others wounded. The gun fight happened just a block away from the Eaton Centre on Yonge St, at a time when it was crowded with shoppers.

While some gang members may delight in going public with their violent crimes, Chettleburgh said there’s no cachet in killing civilians.

He said that after Creba was gunned down, older members of the gang involved were irritated because of the heat brought to bear by police.

And he believes the same is likely to happen in the latest case if gang involvement is proven.

Older members are increasingly leaving the gang scene because of the change in tactics, said Chettleburgh.

“They don’t know what to make of the violence.”

He added that outside of equipping malls with airport-style security, there’s little police can do to stop public gang-style shootings from happening.

For their part, police are urging the public to remain calm.

“One idiot with a gun on a Saturday afternoon in downtown Toronto does not speak to the state of affairs of the city of Toronto,” acting deputy chief Jeff McGuire told a news conference Sunday.

“This has incredible ability to create fear and angst amongst people but we’re here to tell you we’re investigating very carefully.”

But the public displays of gang strength are extremely frustrating for police, Spencer said.

In B.C., gang members are literally hunting each other down and often don’t care who else is around because it may be their one shot at the intended target, Spencer said.

“That’s frightening for the police, absolutely frightening,” he added.

“Because you’re getting completely innocent people in the cross hairs of a rifle.”

© The Canadian Press, 2012

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