Vol. 80, No. 2Cover stories

Male police officers talks to a crowd of kids in a parking lot

Straight talk

Targeting youth to end gang violence in Surrey, B.C.

The Surrey Gang Enforcement Team (SGET) present the Shattering the Image program to youth to dispel myths about gang life. Credit: Surrey RCMP


When it comes to addressing gang violence in Surrey, B.C., RCMP officers are spending more time in elementary and middle schools. It's all part of a push towards more youth education, prevention and intervention programs at the RCMP's largest detachment.

"Our goal is always to prevent youth from being entangled in crime, gangs and violence," says Sgt. Neil Kennedy, who's in charge of Surrey RCMP's Youth Unit. "We know that we can have greater impact and have greater success when we intervene and educate early — before high school is a very critical time."

Over the last three years, Surrey's Youth Unit has expanded by 20 per cent and shifted its focus to younger age groups, targeting kids as young as Grade 4 to get the message across. The Surrey Wraparound (Wrap) program, along with new programs like Shattering the Image and Game On, are helping police encourage youth to make the right choices and steer them away from gang life.

"We use these programs and partnerships to connect with youth, mentor them and guide them into productive lifestyle choices," says Kennedy. "When kids feel connected, they start building healthy relationships and behaviours."

Shattering the Image

This past year, the Surrey Youth Unit and Surrey Gang Enforcement Team (SGET) have been working more closely with the Surrey School District to engage more kids between the ages of eight and 13. The goal is to reach youth before they start heading down the wrong path.

"Why wait till age 14 or 15 when we can go upstream and start supporting these kids at 8 and 9," says Rob Rai, director of school and community connections for the Surrey School District. "Prevention has never been glamourous, but it's far more economical and impactful to deal with issues earlier."

Sgt. Michael Sanchez from the SGET team realized there were many myths and misconceptions about gangs among youth. Ideas like 'gangs provide wealth and power' were prevalent, while the reality of gang violence and crime was often downplayed.

"We realized we needed something to stop the next generation of kids from getting into gangs," says Sanchez. "We needed to shatter the image that gang life is glamourous and shed light on the facts."

With the help of the Surrey School District, Sanchez partnered with Jordan Buna, an ex-gang member turned advocate, to create Shattering the Image — a gang prevention presentation for local elementary, middle and high schools.

Adapted from a provincial program called End Gang Life created by B.C.'s Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit (CFSEU-BC), Shattering the Image is tailored for Surrey's specific gang landscape.

"We're delivering a message that is localized to our community," says Sanchez. "We're seeing younger kids being targeted and recruited into gangs."

Reality check

According to Sanchez, gang recruitment can happen as young as 12 or 13 years old. Many youths can be exposed to gang ideas through social media, like Facebook and Snapchat. He says it's not unusual to see kids post photos with bottles of vodka, air pistols and bags of marijuana, normalizing gang behaviour in grades 5 and 6.

In Shattering the Image, Sanchez explains to youth why these behaviours can be dangerous, and talks about being savvy on social media. He also talks about the history of gangs in the Lower Mainland, current gangs in Surrey, the latest recruitment tactics and trends on the street.

As a member of the SGET team, Sanchez sees the evolution of new street trends as they happen, and includes some of his first-hand policing experiences in the presentation.

"Lately, we were having trouble finding drugs when doing vehicle searches," says Sanchez. "With a little bit of investigation, we figured out that new recruits were being taught to hide drugs in their anal cavity. While this isn't a new tactic, we've seen a resurgence of it in Surrey, so I put it in the presentation."

The last part of the presentation is a heartfelt talk from Buna, who was involved in crime and gangs as a young adult in Surrey.

"I tell my personal story and focus on the concept of choices," he says. "Kids don't realize the things they're doing have consequences, so I try to show them a cause-and-effect in my life."

Buna describes himself as a kid from a "good two-parent family" who got into the wrong crowd in grades 5 and 6. In his 20's, he became involved in the drug trade and was arrested for charges of drug trafficking and carrying a weapon. After serving time, he decided to take his life back, completing a degree in psychology and criminology. He now tours across the province sharing his story with CFSEU-BC's End Gang Life program and Shattering the Image presentations.

"We wanted to do this in Surrey because kids are talking about drugs and gangs anyway," says Buna. "I want to have this conversation with them at a Grade 7 level and give them the facts, rather than have them get wrong information off social media or through classmates."

Since they started giving presentations in September last year, Sanchez and Buna say demand for their program has skyrocketed. The SGET team was assigned two additional members to handle the extra workload.

Different path

Mentoring success story

By Sgt. Neil Kennedy, Surrey RCMP Youth Unit

The first youth I mentored was in Grade 7. He was very shy, didn't have a good self-image and wasn't caring for himself. By staying positive and building him up, he really came out of his shell that year and soon became one of the best-dressed kids at school.

He wasn't a big guy, but by the end of the year when all four-foot-five of him stood up, he looked like he was six feet tall. He became full of confidence, friendly and helpful. His mom said my mentoring was the best thing to happen to him.

He's in Grade 9 now, and I stop in and visit him every once in a while. Now he has a good peer group and he sees school as a positive thing, whereas before he didn't. The most rewarding thing is supporting youth that may be struggling and setting them up for success.

Another one of Surrey's staple youth crime prevention initiatives has been the Wrap Program. Developed in collaboration with the Surrey School District, Wrap dissuades at-risk youth from becoming entrenched in the drug and gang lifestyle by "wrapping" them in a variety of community resources. In recent years the program has been so successful that waitlists began piling up.

"We didn't want to create a vacuum," says Kennedy, referring to the gap in services for waitlisted kids. "We needed to prevent those risk factors — like negative peer group, criminal activity, not going to school, addiction and mental health — from latching on. Those things can encourage a youth to go into criminality."

To address the Wrap waitlisted at-risk kids, the Surrey Youth Unit partnered with Big Brothers and the Surrey School District to create Game On — a 12-week mentoring program for youth who've shown signs of gang-associated behaviour. Game On connects young people to positive leadership and peer mentoring to help steer them back on track before further intervention is needed.

Kennedy says the key is getting kids connected to good role models early, because by grades 8 and 9, most youth have typically already established their social values, moral values and peer groups. He says by reaching out earlier, mentors and peers can set the tone for how youth make decisions in the future.

"Negative behaviours stimulate a negative reaction. This program replaces those negative behaviours," says Kennedy. "Once they're engaged and participating, you've shown them that they're succeeding and they can do it on their own."

The heart of the Shattering the Image, Wrap and Game On programs is to build stronger, more positive youth-police relationships. Whether it's talking to young people about the realities of gang life, or actively engaging kids who are dappling in criminality, police have a role to play when it comes to crime prevention in Surrey, and beyond.

"These younger kids are desperate to attach themselves to something or someone that's cool or powerful or represents a level of success in their eyes," says Sanchez. "So when we [the police] go and pick these kids up and talk to them about their choices, we'll hear them say things like 'I want to be a police officer' later on. And it's because of these relationships we're building."

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