Ottawa Police Backtrack on Gang Label

Sharif Said was gunned down on May 3rd, 2015.  The killing was Ottawa's third murder of 2015 and was described by the Ottawa Citizen's Shaamini Yogaretnam as the city's second gang related shooting.  Why was the shooting described as gang related  - because that is what the police called it.

In the immediate aftermath of the shooting the Ottawa Police recklessly linked the murder to gang activity and insinuated the victim was involved with gang members. According to the Citizen the police were "working on the theory that the shooting was both gang- and drug-related" and that "Said was known to associate with gang members".

The Ottawa citizen was not alone in describing the shooting as gang related.  Ottawa police major crimes investigators also told the CBC and the Ottawa Sun that they believe Said was shot due to gang and drug-related activity.  

The question needs to be asked: Why in the early hours of an on-going investigation were the Ottawa police so quick to link the killing and gang activity?

Regardless of the police's justification for their comments the Said family were understandably upset with the insinuation that that their son was a involved with gangs. After all, the 'gang' label carries a heavy stigma.

In Ottawa 2014 ended with a flurry of gang related shootings and much ink was spilled over the city's purported gang problem. I was critical of the police response to this percieved  problem.  Much like Toronto's 2005 'year of the gun' small sample sizes can explain much of  2014's violence. The Ottawa police disagreed and their response was to double down on a failed gang strategy - one that has the potential to make matters worse.

Today, Said’s family spoke of the young man’s accomplishments to counter suggestions the young man was involved in drugs or gangs. Instead, they painted a picture of a student on a path to a brighter life. Inside an east-end townhouse, a grieving family mourns the loss of a young life full of promise, they say. Proudly displaying his certificates, his acceptance into Carleton and uOttawa, his uncle discounted suggestions that Said had anything to do with a gang
— Joanne Schnurr, CTV Ottawa

On of the main problems with the police's rhetoric surrounding 'gang' labels is the broad and undefined definition of the term.  What makes one a 'gang associate'?  As it turns out, the colour of your skin and where you live are important factors.  

Lets look at an example.  It has been widely reported that police randomly stop and ID - also knowing as 'carding' - young black men regularly (and more frequently than their white counterparts).  The unconstitutional practice of carding allows the police to collect information on who you are, who you are with, and what you are doing.  So if you are a carded black youth waiting for a bus with a kid who the police believe is a gang member - congratulations - you are now a gang associate in the eyes of the cops. The scarlet letter of 'gang associate' can be branded on a youth with only the most tenuous of justifications.

So perhaps this is why the Ottawa police have backtracked on their gang comments in the Said case. Yesterday the Ottawa police told the Ottawa Sun that it is “too early” to determine whether the city’s third homicide of 2015 had any ties to gang activity."

What a difference a day makes.

But the police did comment and the police's comments in the Said case demonstrates a systemic problems with the force's gang strategy.  

A young black man is murdered.  The police imediately label the killing as gang related and insinuate the victim is a gang associate.  The force then backtracks, saying it is too early to link the murder to gang activity. Then the police deny ever speaking the gang word and blame the media.

These actions of the Ottawa police can't possibly further the investigation of the crime.  So why make them?  

It is time to rethink this type of ham-fisted communication strategy which does nothing to solve crimes or gain the community's trust.