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NDP pins its hopes on Quebec's gang strategy

The caller wanted to talk about the stabbing in the park.

Some chitchat followed, nothing more than was said in every home and public place where the attack on a jogger in Assiniboine Park was discussed.

Then the caller dropped the bomb. He'd been talking to someone in the social services field.

"It has all the hallmarks of a gang initiation," he said.

Damn. Just as we were about to put out a story giving the NDP credit for their gang initiative...

Oh well, let's start with the good.

After ignoring the gang problem until an innocent bystander got killed, the NDP did something other than wait for the federal government to do something.

Except that at first glance, it appeared like a lot of nothing. More police, more prosecutors, more "crime prevention" programs. Blah blah blah. Been there. Done that. We guess the city's news media thought the same thing, because the coverage of the new gang initiative was lukewarm.

But we decided to dig a little deeper, and what we found was surprisingly positive given how we're ragged the NDP about their abysmal efforts to fight gangs. It turns out that the government is turning away from its five-year-long holistic, touchy-feely, group-hug approach to gangs in favour of something tougher, something that's already proved that it works.

The NDP has apparently modelled its gang strategy on the successful gang-fighting techniques of Quebec.

How successful?

Well, in Quebec, 67 of the 115 full-patch Hell's Angels are either in jail or just out of jail and on parole. And their arch-rivals, the Bandidos, are "essentially destroyed" after all 25 members were arrested and charged.

Four years ago, Quebec set up dedicated prosecution units designed to go after the gangs and put them out of business. Since then, almost 500 gang members and associates have been charged. More than 300 have been convicted, with 200 still waiting their day in court. Very few of the cases result in charges being stayed by the Crown, in stark contrast to the situation in Manitoba.
And prosecutors are proud that even when courts acquitted some gang members of some of the charges, all were convicted of something.

"There have been no accused who have gotten off scot-free," bragged one chief prosecutor.

To accomplish this, 25 Crown attorneys were taken from their normal jobs and placed in new teams, more than doubling the number of prosecutors working against gangs full time.

Quebec had realized that the old system was too cumbersome and inefficient. Provincial prosecutors were overworked. (Is this beginning to sound familiar?). They often had to divide their attention between a complex trial of a motorcycle gang and the usual flood of smaller cases. If assigned a multi-defendant biker trial, they'd be faced with reading hundreds of pages of evidence, which could take months.

The dedicated prosecutors work hand-in-glove with the police assigned to organized crime investigations. Prosecutors are assigned to a police investigation as soon as it begins. The same prosecutor provides the investigators with advice whenever its needed.

This has proved of crucial importance to obtaining convictions. Crown witnesses in gang trials are often unsavory lawbreakers themselves whose credibility is attacked by defence lawyers. The dedicated prosecution units work with police to provide independent evidence that bolsters the witnesses, as well as advising on the admissability of evidence before charges are laid. Once police file charges, the game is up and the gangs are alerted, so correcting flaws in the case in advance has proved invaluable.

Prosecutors assigned to investigations wind up being the prosecutors who take the cases to court. This gives them a personal stake in the outcome to ensure the case is as strong as it can be. And being familiar with the case means they can go to trial sooner than if they had to spend months reading police reports.

Quebec justice officials say that possibly the biggest sign that their anti-gang strategy is working is that the majority of bikers have pleaded guilty once their saw the evidence the Crown was using against them.

And that's what the NDP hopes to see here as well.

That's why they're doubling the gang prosecutions unit to 16 Crown attorneys over the next year. More police are being added to the specialized gang units. And, in anticipation of success, the province is adding more jail capacity at Headingley Correctional Centre and the Dauphin Correctional Centre and an interdepartmental group is looking at other options to expand capacity even more if needed.

And you don't have to look far to see how this has translated into a new attitude within the Winnipeg Police Service.

The papers carry stories almost daily of widespread raids on gang houses, of seizures of firearms, Tasers, and crack, crack, more crack. And the arrests now include members of the native street gangs which have almost had a pass in the NDP administration until now.

If the Quebec-model gang strategy works, by this time next year we'll be celebrating.

The wild card, as we've said before, remains the judges in the province who remain reluctant to offend offenders by taking them off the streets.

People within the justice system see what happened in Assiniboine Park and say it looks like a gang initiation. One man has been arrested and charged with, among other things, breach of probation.

We'd like to know what he was on probation for, and which judge released him.

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