Analysis

Surrey shootings: How many times can history repeat itself?

Surrey appears to be on-track for a record-setting year of gun violence. It wouldn't be the first time. At what point is the public entitled to a new approach to solving an old problem?

Decades of tough talk from politicians appear to have done little to solve a cycle of drug violence

Surrey has seen 32 shootings since the beginning of 2016. Four have happened in the past four days. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Ever experienced déjà-vu?

I'll admit, I never expected to have a 'past lives' moment involving Surrey Mayor Linda Hepner, but as I watched her respond to the gun violence plaguing her community yesterday, I got this strange feeling I was watching a movie I had already seen many, many times.

"To be dealing with this again is beyond acceptable," she said.

Was that 2015, 2014 or 2009?

But wait a minute — last year, at almost exactly this time, didn't Hepner tell a community meeting called in response to a 2015 gang related turf war: "It has to stop"?

Or was that one year earlier, when then-Surrey mayor Dianne Watts vowed to tell criminals "You're not welcome" in response to recommendations made from a task force called in the wake of public outrage at the brutal killing of hockey mum Julie Paskall?

Surrey mayor Linda Hepner and Surrey RCMP Supt. Shawn Gill ask for patience as the city deals with more gun violence. (Jason Proctor/CBC)

Then again, perhaps it was 2009, when former premier Gordon Campbell promised to deploy hundreds of new officers and prosecutors to deal with a worrying increase in gang violence that year, announcing "British Columbians have had enough."

Lower Mainland graveyards are littered with the corpses of long-forgotten and soon-to-be-forgotten gangsters whose petty wars terrorized whole neighbourhoods during their day.

Judging by the numbers — Surrey has seen 32 shootings so far in 2016, four in the past four days alone — a new cast of the walking-dead is waiting to join them.

Hepner herself portrayed the most recent violence as part of an ever-repeating circle that results from periodic crack downs.

"That is the cycle," she said.

"You create the void and somebody chooses to fill it. When you take four and a half million dollars of drugs off the street — and that's what we did most recently — then you are faced with obvious criminal reciprocity as well."

Tired of this movie

So at what point do we get to say we're tired of watching this movie repeat itself? Tired of watching politicians repeat the same calls for more police resources and tougher laws; tired of poster campaigns and lectures to oblivious teens on the evils of gang life; tired of watching as young men die.

This is not in any way to doubt the sincerity of the police officers, parents and social workers on the frontlines of these battles.

But former B.C. Attorney General Geoff Plant yesterday tweeted that "regrettably, Surrey is once again experiencing the consequences of our failed drug criminalization policy."

Former B.C. Solicitor General Kash Heed has made the same observation. So has former B.C. premier Mike Harcourt.

All three spent their lives on different ends of the ideological spectrum, but on this point they agree: decades of prohibition have done little to stop either the flow of drugs or the pile-up of bodies.

And who are the targets?

"Right now, it is within the demographic of what we're seeing, the majority are young South Asian males," Hepner said. "And we have a lot of young South Asians."

Violence as a disease

Perhaps it's time for some fresh perspectives. In other jurisdictions, particularly in the United States, researchers have been looking for years at violence from an epidemiological point of view: almost like a contagious disease.

A 2013 article in Wired magazine described the approach as considering acts of violence like germs.

Imagine for a moment that a virus is cutting down young, South Asian men in Surrey at an alarming rate. Researchers look at how the disease spreads, who is most susceptible, how to inoculate potential victims.

University of Chicago epidemiologist Gary Slutkin described the approach to the author of the Wired piece.

"You do interruption and detection. You look for potential cases. You hire a new type of worker, a violence interrupter, trained to identify who is thinking a certain way. They have to be like health workers looking for the first cases of bird flu," Slutkin told the magazine.

"In a violence epidemic, behavior change is the treatment."

Variations of that approach have been undertaken in communities from North Carolina and Chicago to Los Angeles.

The Wrap Project

The City of Surrey has embraced a somewhat similar program with the so-called Wrap Project, which has been taking a proactive approach to keeping vulnerable teens out of gangs since 2009.

Last year, the province announced a one-time $270,000 contribution to the program. And the federal government has promised $3.5 million over five years in support.

B.C. Premier Christy Clark hugs Jessy Sahota during a news conference in Surrey. Sahota, a graduate of the Surrey Wrap Project, spoke in support of more provincial money for the program. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

A 2012 review of the program found Wrap effective both in terms of cost and reduced contacts between participants and police. But the review also highlighted a need to provide young people opportunities to keep away from the temptations of violence and gang life after they leave the program and high school.

The same release where the province announced new money for the Wrap Project boasted of spending $60 million annually on the RCMP for the Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit and anti-gang initiatives.

By those standards a quarter of a million for an alternative approach is a drop in the bucket. Which raises a question as to whether enough money is going towards innovation — as opposed to repetition.

Hepner offered no assurances she wouldn't be back in the same place next year making the same promises: "I don't think you can assure people of anything other than you are providing the resources that will provide safety in the community."

Judging by the latest spate of shootings, reviews on that part of this endless movie are likely to be mixed.

About the Author

Jason Proctor

@proctor_jason

Jason Proctor is a reporter in British Columbia for CBC News and has covered the B.C. courts and mental health issues in the justice system extensively.

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