Fifteen years ago, the Regina SWAT team could go 18 months without being called out once. But as of June of this year, in response to a growing gang problem in the city, it had been called into action 29 times.
At the same time, the city police force has also bought a $375,000 armoured vehicle and decided to put semi-automatic rifles in every patrol car.
Experts, however, tell The Fifth Estate there are other solutions.
“When you move into a community because of violence, you are overwhelmingly moving into a community of colour, and their experience with the police and the law has been long, historic and toxic,” said David Kennedy, a criminologist at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.
“You do not want to show up in communities like that wearing body armour and masks and in armoured personnel carriers while carrying automatic weapons.”
Kennedy sees another way to approach the issue.
He is one of the creators of “The Boston Miracle,” or what’s now known as Operation Ceasefire, an approach to reducing gang violence born in Boston in the 1990s, when youth homicides in the city had spiralled out of control.
In less than a decade following the launch of the program, the people behind it reported that youth homicides in Boston decreased by 63 per cent.
“We could not believe what happened was real,” said Kennedy.
The approach does not involve adding to the police arsenal, and instead focuses on targeting the few individuals perpetrating the majority of crimes and offering them options: leave the gang, accept help in the form of education, jobs, social support and training or face the full weight of the law.
But so far, consideration of that kind of approach has not found many proponents within the Regina Police Service — or many other police services in Canada.
Regina Police defend their decisions to add firepower, saying their officers need the new tools to protect themselves and the community.
According to Regina Police, violent gun offences in Regina increased 25 per cent in the last year alone, while the number of gun-related injuries jumped 41 per cent. As of late August 2019, Regina had the highest amount of crime in the city in a decade.
In 2018, Regina’s crime rate was triple that of Toronto.
“The reality is we work very hard to be out in the community, to be professional, to be approachable, to be the opposite of militarization,” said Regina Police Chief Evan Bray.
He acknowledges SWAT team use has spiked, but says that is far outweighed by officers’ positive interactions with the public.
“What I always talk about is hundreds of thousands of contacts in the year with our front-line officers and I think we need to focus on the good work that’s being done there, but recognize that every once in a while, we have to be police officers.”
Bray also points to his service’s extensive outreach programs that include a team of community engagement officers, along with events like Coffee with a Cop and an annual barbecue to honour Tamra Keepness, a five-year-old girl who went missing in 2004.
The police service says the additional firepower is also a response to the 2014 Moncton shootings that killed three RCMP officers and injured two.
Regina Police spokesperson Elizabeth Popowich says the new weaponry “comes not only out of meeting the threat of firearms in our community, but a legal obligation to provide adequate equipment and training for police officers.”
The bulk of the crime in Regina is centred in one neighborhood known as North Central, which is home to four main street gangs — Indian Mafia, Native Syndicate, Saskatchewan Warriors and Native Syndicate Killers.
It’s a neighbourhood where more than half of the residents live below the poverty line and more than half aren’t employed.
Several houses are boarded up and abandoned. Garbage and used needles litter many back alleys. Police vehicles can often be seen buzzing through the neighborhood.
According to Regina Police, methamphetamine seizures have gone up 2,100 per cent in the last four years.
“It’s pretty crazy out there,” Ryan Varley told The Fifth Estate.
Varley grew up in North Central and joined a street gang when he was 11 years old. He went on to become a leader of the Native Syndicate gang.
“In this area, you’ve got to be able to fight going out the door,” he said. “It’s just a matter of time before you get involved in the drugs. You’re around them enough, you’re going to get addicted, right?… Even to this day, I’m still struggling in recovery.
“I had a lot of close friends that died just recently … from drugs and violence.”
Varley was sentenced to a total of 10 years in prison for crimes ranging from breaking and entering and assault to unlawful confinement. He admits he was involved with violence and caused a lot of hurt when he was with the gang.
“I live with that regret, the pain that I caused people.”
Varley recently left the gang and has decided to speak out about his experiences in hope that it might help others leave gang life behind.
“I feel that it’s something that I had do … to show [current gang members] there’s a better way, and the only way we can get there is to talk about it, to let people know and to let people see that people do change.”
A beacon of hope in the neighborhood comes in the form of a group of mostly Indigenous women who patrol the streets, collecting used needles, handing out food and raising the spirits of community members.
It’s called White Pony Lodge.
So far this year, White Pony Lodge volunteers have found 24,445 dangerous items during their weekly patrols — a sharp increase from the 4,972 they found in 2016.
“I want people to know that North Central is full of good people,” Leticia Racine, one of the group’s founding members, said while out on a community patrol.
“It’s not a place to be scared of, it’s a place to come and bring your good energy,” she said.
“We need people not to judge us and to be fearful of us. As a community, we need people to have compassion and love and prayers and good energy and good thoughts. I love North Central.”
Racine is looking for solutions to curb the violence in her neighborhood and believes Operation Ceasefire could be the answer.
“I think that’s something that we could do as well as a community,” she said. “There’s absolutely no reason why we can’t do that here.”
The program is a systematic approach to gang violence that involves a series of what are referred to as “call-ins.” The most violent gang members, often just a handful of people in a city, are invited to meet with the police, social service and spiritual leaders.
Gang members are given a choice: put down your guns and accept help or face the full force of the law. The key to the program, say its creators, is collaboration.
Spiritual leaders, social services and the police need to work together, they say.
“I think one of the key things for all of the parties, especially the police, was to come out of our comfort zone,” Bob Merner, a police officer in Boston in the 1990s and one of the creators of Operation Ceasefire, said during a recent visit to Regina.
Merner said police had to realize they “weren’t just law enforcement, lock ’em up — you know, arrest and enforce. We had an opportunity to look at the bigger problem, but we also had an opportunity to look at the individual [gang members] as people.”
The program has been used successfully around the world, including in the United States, Brazil, Sweden and Britain, according to the National Network of Safe Communities — the body that runs Operation Ceasefire.
The program has been running in Oakland, Calif., since 2012. That year, the city had 553 shootings and 125 homicides, but after five years of Ceasefire, it reported a 49 per cent decrease in shootings and a 42 per cent decrease in homicides.
Elements of Operation Ceasefire have been tried in Canada, but never the full program.
The Fifth Estate recently hosted a community forum in Regina, where the question was posed: Could it work here?
“There are principles that underlie our efforts in Boston that are translatable,” said Rev. Jeffrey Brown, who travelled from Boston to Regina for the forum and is one of the creators of the program.
“I’ve been around the United States, in large, medium and small cities, taking those principles and they’ve morphed into … what was appropriate for their community. And so I would say yes, absolutely [it could work in Regina].”
Regina’s police chief says he’s “inspired” by the program, but collaboration on this scale isn’t cheap.
“It’s not going to be a straight line to success,” he said. “There’s going to be stumbles. But that takes time and … it takes a lot of energy and a lot of resources.”
The advice from those who have done it: Don’t wait for funding. If you build it, they will come.
“As it started to get successful [in Boston], the mayor bought in,” said Merner. “Then [we] got to meet on numerous times with then-U.S. President Bill Clinton. Once the success started to take place, they started to fund us, as opposed to the other way around.”