Gang busters: Tackling gang violence in Abbotsford

Police Chief Bob Rich will address Rotary Peace Forum on the issue

The formation of a gang suppression unit in the Abbotsford Police Department was one measure taken to combat gang violence in the community.

The formation of a gang suppression unit in the Abbotsford Police Department was one measure taken to combat gang violence in the community.

Bob Rich began working as an officer in an era when it was believed that police could not effect change.

Crime was viewed as an outcome of socio-economic issues such as family dysfunction, illiteracy and substance abuse, and police merely reacted to those situations.

But Rich related to the philosophies of former New York police commissioner William Bratton, and others, who believed crime, in many cases, could be prevented.

Rich, the chief of the Abbotsford Police Department (APD) since 2008, credits his staff with embracing strategies that are often viewed as unconventional.

There is, perhaps, no more evidence of their success than in the community’s gang-related crimes, which reached a peak in 2008-09, but have since dropped dramatically.

Rich will speak about this issue during a presentation on Saturday, Feb. 23 at the Rotary Peace Forum in Richmond. His topic is “Combating Gang Violence.”

Gang-related murders and violence saw the city dubbed “the murder capital of Canada” as rival groups – such as the Red Scorpions and the UN Gang – battled for control of the drug trade.

By 2011, the rate of violent crime in Abbotsford had dropped 26 per cent and the city had shed its “murder capital” title.

Rich said the APD tackled the gang problem with a comprehensive plan that included forming the gang suppression unit, releasing the names of high-profile groups such as the Bacons and the Duhres, and installing video surveillance in neighborhoods occupied by gangsters.

“One aspect of this is you lift up the rock and say, ‘Look what’s here, people.’ Criminals do not like the light,” Rich said.

A public awareness campaign included a series of posters, videos and presentations aimed at steering kids away from the gang lifestyle.

Some of the initiatives incurred criticism – for example, a Christmas card sent to criminals in December that depicted Rich dressed as Santa Claus in tactical gear and toting an assault rifle.

The idea was to encourage the recipients to consider a different lifestyle, with a phone number provided if they wanted support.

Rich acknowledges that such strategies can be risky, but they have to be edgy to have an impact.

“If you’re going to do something like that, you’re not going to send them (criminals) a picture of a Christmas tree.”

Rich acknowledges that although the gang problem has dissipated, it’s still an issue.

“We’re not out of the woods yet. There could still be a murder or serious violence out there.”

He said the names and types of gangs currently operating in the city aren’t as clear as they once were. There is much more business being conducted between groups, and it’s more difficult to pinpoint who’s working with whom.

But one thing is clear.

“Our goal is to always be chipping away and making our community safer.”