New gangs are smart enough to know not to name themselves, says gang expert Doug Spencer

Doug Spencer
Doug Spencer Photo by Indira Prahst
THE execution-style shooting death of notorious South Asian gangster Tejinder Singh Malhi, 29, in downtown Vancouver earlier this week highlights the Lower Mainland’s gang violence that continues to jeopardize public safety and destroy young men and families.

Several questions have been raised about the cause of such violence and why youth continue to be seduced into the world of gangs. More recently the issue of increased gang activity in Vancouver’s South Slope area has been the talk of the town.

This week I spoke to well-known gang expert Constable Detective Doug Spencer, a former Vancouver Police officer who is currently with Transit Police, about this issue. Doug continues to address the issue of gangs with youths at schools and at Langara College. A few years ago when I went out on patrol with him for the Bar Watch program to keep gangs away from bars, I saw how much gangsters respected him and how much he knew about them.

Spencer praised the Transit Police chief as a “very proactive-thinking chief who wants the kids to get the message” and so he remains connected with the kids, overseeing them as the gang expert in his department.

Here’s part of the interview:

PRAHST: What about the gang situation in the South Slope in Vancouver? Is it starting up again?

SPENCER: Well, there has been some success in dealing with some of the gang members such as the Red Scorpions and some of the Indo-Canadian gangs in Vancouver. But the new gangs are smart enough to know not to name themselves or to stigmatize themselves with the police. They are also very organized among the groups involved in drug trafficking and all sorts of crime.

PRAHST: What kind of drug trafficking are we talking about there?

SPENCER: Like heroin, cocaine, ecstasy, you name it … methane. And you got the Dhaks who are a very influential group, but they have been decimated with the other guys like the Bacon brothers. So every time that happens, it creates a vacuum or a void; so you got all these young kids coming up who want to be the next gangster – it’s a power struggle.

PRAHST: What does the recruitment and street activity look like at the moment?

SPENCER: The Aboriginal groups, among others, have a lot of street gang kids that have addiction issues. They are not organized, but if they ever got somebody with the stature of Bindy Johal or Jonathan Bacon or somebody with leadership qualities to pull them together, that would be trouble, because there are literally hundreds of Aboriginal / First Nations kids that want to be gangsters. I have looked on their Facebook accounts and monitor all that stuff. That is all they talk about.

PRAHST: What about gang recruitment in the South Slope area and surrounding areas?

SPENCER: The recruitment has not stopped. If you are willing to do all their dirty work, they will come and befriend you and it won’t be transparent, it will be quite pimp-like. They still approach a youth with an Escalade and are good at befriending them, taking them out for dinner, or some form of bribery. The kids are naive and they think it’s because the gang member likes them. They won’t come and say ‘hey, come join my gang and go sell all my drugs and you may get shot.’ They will say ‘hey, you will be rich, come with me.’

That is exactly what happened with Gurmit Dhak where this gangster shows up at David Thompson school ground in a brand new Porsche and says ‘hey, how is it going. Hey, you come and work for me, you will have one of those’ and points to his Porsche. A kid in grade 10, he is thinking I can get a Porsche, and the next thing you know he is selling drugs and trafficking for [Lotus gang boss] Raymond Chan in this case – and they are both gone (dead)!

PRAHST: What are some newer or ongoing challenges you face in tackling gang recruitment?

SPENCER: The kids that are being targeted are really diverse. Some of the kids being targeted are from war-torn countries. We know 12-year-olds from Rwanda who are posing with guns, and believe that being a gangster is a fun life. These kinds of kids are really trying hard to fit in. When you think about what some of these kids have been exposed to, the gangster lifestyle is glorified for them. These kids are really lost.

Other kids that are recruited are the black sheep, the ones that have no self-esteem and no money. When they have no self-esteem, it is so easy to recruit and win them over. One kid was sold into the gang life when someone bought him a burger. Some kids do come from homes with well-off parents. There just isn’t one solid answer.

PRAHST: Are we are seeing an increase of gang members of South Asian descent?

SPENCER: I think it is the same. I don’t think it has gone down. I know lots of young Indo-Canadian males, [whom I met] when I was in the youth squad in Vancouver, that by some miracle have survived and are off doing productive things in society. I will tell you a story. I gave a talk with the Odd Squad to a bunch of youth and probation workers that were trying to deal with youth getting involved in gangs and this young South Asian guy comes to me afterwards. He says ‘do you know Rick Schaaf?’ I said ‘yes, that is my brother-in-law (he since has passed away from cancer).’

The guy says ‘he was my school officer at John Oliver, and you know he saved my life when I was getting involved with the wrong people and guided me. Among my group of friends, three of them have been murdered. I am the only one that is still alive. I am a youth worker now.’ It has nothing to do with their ethnicity; it has to do with somebody that cares and takes an interest in kids’ lives and just steers them away from the bad influences.

PRAHST: Police are seeing value in doing this preventive work. Are police doing a lot more intelligence?

SPENCER: We are focussing on the younger kids. The younger they are, the better the chances of helping them out. We target the more violent ones. During surveillance we follow these kids around. … I will tell you a story. We were doing work on robberies of people’s cell phones in the Surrey Central area. We were following a guy and all of a sudden this Indo-Canadian youth meets this guy in the mall. The next day, they are at the same place. … We check their tickets and identity (and we find he’s) Jimi Sandhu [who was part of the Dhak-Duhre associates and was arrested February 1 and charged with second-degree murder in the January 2 death of Red Scorpions’ gang leader Matthew Campbell of Abbotsford]. We did not know who he was at the time.

So there is value in what we do [surveillance]. We also get to know the kids who are involved. We arrest them to keep them away from higher level gangsters. There is crime everywhere. You have to have police presence. The key now is to share surveillance. Kids involved in gangs think no one will know who they are when leaving one jurisdiction but we talk to each other and share information.

The other problem is technology. With the new websites that are out there, there is easy access to information. You can learn how to make crystal methane. [There is] also accessing the turf of addicts … people shoot for cell phones with all the numbers of drug addicts on them. The United Nations gang came into fruition by opening it up to members of all nationalities, and capitalized on all the markets specific to some of the (ethnic) groups and outcast kids.

It’s a never ending battle to educate very kid, but we keep trying. The hard part is that kids can access pretty much anything, but they are being misinformed. For example, guys recruiting youth to join gangs are getting them to do bank robberies. I know of a kid from Britannia who got involved.

INDIRA: How lucrative is this?

SPENCER: You get a 16-year-old to torture someone for five hundred dollars. Also, kids are getting five hundred for stealing marijuana from a grow-up. But if they did that to a Hells Angel, they are not going to call police. That person would disappear! But for a kid, that kind of money is attractive.

INDIRA: Do you continue to be hopeful?

SPENCER: There are payoffs. I have dozens of kids come to me saying ‘You were totally right. I was heading down that path and walked away.’ That is a victory for us.

Chair, Department of Sociology and Anthropology,
& Race and Ethnic Relations Instructor,
Langara College