It’s a Friday night in September and Const. Paul Walker is seven hours into his 10-hour shift with the Abbotsford Police Department’s gang crime unit (GCU).
A call comes in that known gangster Varinderpal Gill has been spotted at the bar of a local restaurant. A month earlier, the APD had issued a public notice that there were people who wanted Gill, 19, dead, and warned that his presence in public places could put others at risk.
They urged citizens to call if they spotted Gill in places such as gyms and restaurants.
The caller on this particular night is following up on that suggestion, and Walker arrives at the restaurant just after 9 p.m. His three GCU counterparts also show up: Const. Mark Frendo, Const. Sukh Dhaliwal and the head of the unit, Sgt. Maitland (Smitty) Smith.
Also joining them is an APD patrol officer.
There, they find Gill and escort him out of the establishment. They tell him that he needs to leave the property: “Every other person in there is at risk,” Walker says.
Gill, a tall lanky man who looks like a young teenager, protests. “Why are you being mean to me?”
“Someone’s going to get shot – whacked – because of you,” Frendo says, telling Gill that he needs to leave Abbotsford, and the GCU can help him move if he wants to clean up his life.
The officers call a cab for Gill and, when it arrives, he leaves without further protest.
They then return to the table where Gill was sitting and ask to see the IDs of Gill’s three male and two female companions. Dhaliwal runs them through the database on his laptop to check their criminal backgrounds.
“Do you have their bill coming?” Walker asks the server after the IDs are processed. “They need to get out of here.”
The three men are escorted outside, while the women are allowed to remain. One of the men is the survivor of a previous drive-by shooting in which another man was killed. He currently has drug charges before the courts, and is subject to a 10 p.m. curfew as a condition of his bail.
He, too, questions why he’s being asked to leave the restaurant.
“So you guys can’t ever let me have a good time? I’m having a few drinks and chilling,” he says.
The man calls his lawyer and asks Walker to speak with him. The lawyer has no legal issues with the man being ordered to leave the restaurant. His sister soon shows up, and the men leave with her.
Frendo then displays a small curved knife with a sharp blade that was left behind at their table and doesn’t belong to the restaurant.
Less than two weeks after the interaction, on Oct. 3, Gill is killed in a drive-by shooting in the busy parking lot of The Junction Shopping Centre in Mission. No bystanders are injured in the incident, but a bullet is found to have gone through the window of a nearby Mexican restaurant.
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The four-member APD gang crime unit was formed in January of this year in response to the violence and deaths stemming from the ongoing Lower Mainland gang conflict, consisting primarily of young men of South Asian descent.
The APD initially referred to the dispute as the Townline Hill conflict – named for the west Abbotsford area where most of the incidents had been occurring. But, over time, they said the issues extended beyond Abbotsford’s borders and were part of a bigger problem that they now call the Lower Mainland gang conflict.
At one point, some of the gang leaders might have lived in Abbotsford, but Walker says most of the players now living in the community are dial-a-dope dealers who are attracted by the lure of big money and the gangster lifestyle.
Walker said they are often recruited by gangs while in high school, but they soon find out they make very little money and, by then, it’s too late for them to get out without dying.
Many of them lack a strong male role model in their lives, he said.
Former Police Chief Bob Rich, who retired at the end of last month, said Abbotsford’s situation is unique to other communities in that many of the gang members live at home with their parents.
That has spurred local police to try to connect with these families on a deeper level.
“Our engagement was to say to these parents, ‘Your young man is a member of the gang and, by having him living in your house: a) he is involved in a business that is killing people … b) he’s putting you and your neighbours at risk,’ ” Rich said.
The GCU was formed, in great part, to connect more closely with these families – and with the community as a whole. Walker says the support is crucial to stemming the gang issues.
“We’ve made some significant headway in building relationships with families … They know you. They develop a trust with you. They share with you, and you work on those problems together on an ongoing basis,” Walker says.
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Walker knocks on the door of a west Abbotsford home. It is greeted by a jovial man who says: “You didn’t need to knock. You know you can just walk right in.”
The man, who asks to remain anonymous, describes Walker as “family,” after the connection the two have developed over the past year.
He says his son, now in his early 20s, seemed to be on the right track a few years ago. He was playing basketball and studying engineering at university, but he got recruited into a gang to sell and deliver drugs.
“We thought we were living in a good neighbourhood,” the dad says.
His son’s behaviour worsened – he was staying out later and not telling his family where he had been. Every week, he would be in a different rental car. They questioned him about his behaviour and tried to set down rules, but their son rebelled.
The man says confronting his son led to violent physical outbursts. After one such assault, the father had to be taken to hospital for treatment, and he had his son charged, but the young man continued to deal drugs.
The dad reached out to the GCU after its formation this year. He says that’s when things changed. He had someone he could reach out to on a regular basis for support and advice on how to help his son.
The man said connecting with the same officers – who know his and his son’s story – on a regular basis, rather than a different officer every time, has made a difference. He said he feels like they care and want to make an impact.
Walker says the GCU takes that role seriously, making themselves available to families even in their off hours.
“We’re police officers. We’re counsellors. We’re mentors. We’re basically a part of their family. We do it all under one hat,” he says.
The man’s son was busted by the GCU earlier this year and has pleaded guilty to some of his charges. But the dad feels more hopeful about the future of his son, who has been in counselling and wants to go back to school.
He wishes that more parents would speak out about their sons’ involvement in the gang conflict – rather than being ashamed or fearful – and learn to trust the police.
“If you want to save your son, you cannot lie,” he says. “The gangsters are hiding in our community. Stop hiding them.”
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Intervention and suppression of criminal activity are another big part of the GCU’s role, Walker explains. During his shift, he drives through several neighbourhoods, watching for anything suspicious that catches his eye – such as people driving a vehicle that “doesn’t fit a legitimate occupation” or groups of young men gathering at parks or underground parking lots.
The unit regularly pulls over individuals they know, just to check up on them and let it be known that police are keeping an eye on them.
“You get in tune with who’s who in the zoo … We make it uncomfortable for them,” Walker says.
He gets a “hunch” about a black Acura that three young men are entering along a side street. One of the men does a double-take as Walker drives by, and he watches them in his rear-view mirror as they pull away in the vehicle. They initially go the same direction as Walker after he makes a turn, but they then do a U-turn.
Walker turns around and follows them into a nearby parking lot. He runs the licence plate, and discovers that the registered owner is an “N” driver, but he doesn’t have the “N” displayed and has too many passengers in the car. But the driver has no criminal record.
Dhaliwal also shows up, and the two officers determine that there are no issues with the three men. They are given a warning, and Walker gives the driver one of the small foam footballs that he distributes throughout his shift.
The footballs are stamped with the abbyagainstgangs.ca website, and Walker says they serve as a “discussion starter” and leave the stop on a positive note.
Other stops during his shift include checking up on offenders who are subject to curfews – as part of their bail, probation or sentencing – to ensure they are where they should be. If they aren’t, they’ll be charged with breaching their conditions.
Walker’s list on this day includes 13 men, mainly with drug and weapon offences. Six of them have 24-hour curfews.
There are also more checks of bars and restaurants, seeking out known offenders whose presence could put public safety at risk and ordering them to leave.
The GCU also works in partnership with other agencies – such as the regional Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit – to address gang issues that cross jurisdictions.
Walker recognizes that the GCU – or the Abbotsford Police Department as a whole – can’t eradicate the gang situation, but he hopes that a partnership between police and community will help stem the issues.
“Reach out to us. Let’s make some positive change,” he says.
– For more, visit abbyagainstgangs.ca or contact the gang crime unit at firstname.lastname@example.org or 604-864-4777.
SIGNS OF GANG AFFILIATION
Possible indicators of gang affiliation:
• Confrontational behaviour, including disrespect for parents or school authorities
• Withdraws from family and family activities
• Poor grades, school absences and increased school discipline
• Decline in school participation
• Conflict between home and school cultures
• Criminal behaviour by other family members
• Stays out late without reason
• Alcohol or drug use
• Withdrawal from longtime friends and forming new poor peer relations
• Increased negative contact with the police
• Owns a number of different cellphones
• Keeps their room locked or demand privacy and will often become upset or mad if parents or siblings want to know what is in their room or why they want privacy
• Changes in attitude about usual activities, including sports or school
• Unexplained injuries, such as being beaten, or injuries to hand and knuckles from fighting
• Possession of firearms or weapons
• Unexplained cash or goods such as clothing or jewelry
Source: Abbotsford Police Department (abbypd.ca)