British Columbia

Police poster campaign naming known gang members raises risk of racial profiling, warn advocates

Community advocates and members are warning that an RCMP strategy warning people to stay away from known gang members raises the risk of racial profiling and stigmatising the Lower Mainland's South Asian community.

Law enforcement agencies released names and photos of known gangsters, majority of whom are people of colour

Mo Dhaliwal, a local advocate and the co-founder of the Poetic Justice Foundation, said while he understands concerns around public safety, he worries the strategy will create 'an archetype [of] what a gangster is.' (CBC)

Community advocates are warning that a law enforcement strategy of naming and shaming known gang members to keep the public safe is harmful to the Lower Mainland's southeast Asian community, and raises the risk of racial profiling.

Gang-related shootings have spiked in recent weeks, prompting Vancouver police to release the names and photos of six known gangsters they believe pose a significant risk to residents.

The province's anti-gang agency has followed suit, releasing the names and photos of 11 men they say pose a significant threat to public safety because of their gang involvement and "ongoing nexus to violence." 

Law enforcement officials said there are no arrest warrants out for the men identified on the poster, but that the strategy is necessary to keep the public safe. 

But Mo Dhaliwal, a local advocate and the co-founder of the Poetic Justice Foundation, said he worries the strategy will create "an archetype [of] what a gangster is."

"The problem is that when you're already from a racialized community, you're already subject to more scrutiny and racism than the white counterparts of these gangsters. I think it's highly problematic and this leads to the potential for a lot of racial profiling," he said.

"We tend to start associating and thinking this is a problem of a community as opposed to it being a social issue in this community. Those issues get linked to the race of these people rather than being linked to the area."

Sgt. Brenda Winpenny, public affairs officer for B.C.'s anti-gang police agency, was asked about the potential for the poster campaign to lead to racial profiling, but said the men on the poster are there for good reason.

"These individuals were identified due to their involvement with gangs. That's it. Their ability to be perpetrators or even victims of violence and the risk that poses to the public," she said. 

'Embarrassing ... but also racist'

Dhaliwal said he's experienced racial profiling before, having once been thrown out of a restaurant by members of the gang task force who mistook him for someone else.

It's a scenario Harpo Mander, a community advocate and PhD candidate, has also experienced. She said she was once sitting in a popular restaurant celebrating a friend's birthday when members of the gang task force barged in, singled out her table and started checking the IDs of everyone at her table.

Law enforcement officials said there are no arrest warrants out for the men identified on the poster, but that the strategy is necessary to keep the public safe. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

On another occasion, she said, she dropped her younger brother off at a movie theatre with a group of his friends. The group was turned away before they could buy tickets, when a manager at the theatre said they posed a security risk.

"It's embarrassing, first of all — but it's also racist. To walk into a space and assume that everyone who looks a certain way is going to be affiliated with X, Y, and Z is ridiculous," she said.

She said she also felt concerned when she saw the poster put out by law enforcement agencies, worrying it may increase incidents like those she has experienced.

"The reaction that me and my friends have when we see something like that is, 'Oh man, now everyone who looks like that is going to be seen and perceived as a gangster, or a gang member, or a dangerous person,'" she said.

Annie Ohana, an anti-oppression curriculum specialist at L.A. Matheson Secondary School in Surrey, said the effects of anti-gang campaigns go far beyond raising awareness.

"I know as a teacher living and working in Surrey that students develop a chip on their shoulder. When the majority of the media focuses on your community only in times of crisis, only to point out problems and flaws, then you start to look at yourself and your community as being problematic," she said, adding the poster is only one part of a longstanding issue.

"To [warn people to] be careful is one thing. But the poster creates a perception — right away you hear people say that Surrey is gang land. And that's an old narrative as well. I'm not saying that the poster is the cause of all of this — this is a much larger reality, a social conditioning of how we see other people."

With files from Joel Ballard and CBC's The Early Edition

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