Born into controversy, the Ottawa police guns and gangs unit continues to be a lightning rod for criticism.
Two years into its existence, critics question everything from the way members of the unit conduct investigations, to the methodology they use to identify gang members. Some even question whether the city has a gang problem at all.
Ottawa defence lawyer Dominic Lamb has dealt with five or six guns and gangs warrants since the unit came into existence. And not a single one has been successful at taking a gun off Ottawa streets.
"None of the ones that I've seen come across my desk have even resulted in the seizure of a gun," says Mr. Lamb. "Never guns. Sometimes drugs, sometimes nothing."
(One high-profile example of this type of outcome would be the search of the home of Ahmad Balshe -- better known as the rapper Belly -- on Aug. 15. In a joint search, involving OPP and members of the guns and gangs unit, police found three BB guns and a bulletproof vest in his Greely home, but nothing illegal.)
The individuals listed on these warrants, Mr. Lamb says, are "without fail, young black or Arab males -- at least the ones that I've seen."
And most of the time, these warrants list confidential informants as the source of information and target those "living in the poorer neighbourhoods in the city," he says.
It's a common observation among critics: Police tend to crack down on gang members who are more in need of social assistance than judicial punishment.
Mohamed Sofa, a community health worker who grew up on Ritchie Street, knows a number of young men whom police have identified as gang members -- some of whom have served time in jail as a result of the charges against them. And while these young men are predominantly from visible minority and immigrant communities, few fit the description of a hard-core gang member.
"They look big, but they're really young -- in heart as well," Mr. Sofa says.
Most are high school drop-outs, who end up dealing drugs out of circumstance. They stick with the friends they've grown up with, because those are the people they are closest with.
Then there are the questions about how police identify alleged gang members.
Mark Ertel, president of the Defence Counsel Association of Ottawa, says proving street gang affiliations is difficult "because there are no recognized objective experts."
"It's tricky to prove that somebody is a member of a gang or that the gangs even exist. The so-called experts are police officers who have a biased view of what they are testifying about," says Mr. Ertel.
Part of the problem, lawyers argue, is that the six-point criteria developed by the Criminal Intelligence Service of Canada in 1991 to identify gang members "casts too wide a net." Three of these six points must be proven true to identify a suspected gang member.
One of the three criteria must be the direct or indirect involvement in a gang-related crime.
The other criteria can include two of the following:
* Reliable source information that the person is a gang member.
* Police observations of the person with other known gang members.
* Admission of gang membership.
* Previous court findings that the person was a gang member.
* Common or symbolic gang identification, such as wearing gang colours, tattoos or carrying weapons, poems or participating in induction rituals.
According to the criminal intelligence service, a gang is three or more persons, formally or informally organized, who may have a common name or identifying symbol and who are engaged in a pattern of criminal behaviour creating an atmosphere of fear and intimidation within any community. But critics say a gang is not so easy to define.
"What is a gang-motivated crime?" asks Peter Stieda, an immigration lawyer who represented Remy Maliragora, an alleged member of the Ledbury- Banff Crips who was deported to Rwanda in late July.
"There are so many things that can fit as a gang-motivated crime. It's too wide an umbrella," says Mr. Stieda. "This is designed for investigative purposes, not to come up with findings of guilt."
Once a person is identified as a gang member by police, there is no straightforward process to removing their name from that list, which currently includes as many as 600 names in Ottawa. Some of these people have spoken out publicly.
Mr. Maliragora denied he was a member of the gang while family members maintained he had turned his life around. And Chadi Wehbe, an Ottawa man convicted of intimidating a family of witnesses, told the Citizen earlier this year that police say he is a part of the West Side Bloods, a gang he claims doesn't even exist.
Many critics say the problems involving gangs would be better served by investing more heavily in social programs and support services than by beefing up patrols and investigations.
"The problem is not going to be solved by a guns and gang unit and somebody saying: 'We're going to get tough with these guys'," says Mr. Ertel. "The problem is going to be solved by somebody looking at the root causes of crime and trying to deal with them."
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