Comeau: How We Can Reduce Gang Violence

August 11, 2010 | 0 Comments

Kevin Comeau gave a speech at the Rotary Club on Gang Violence; below is a summary and the full text of the speech follow further down:

1 Gang violence is much more threatening to the social and economic foundation of Bermuda than it is in other countries, for four reasons:

(i) The gang shootings are much closer to each and every one of our homes, thereby increasing our risk of physical harm.

(ii) The gang violence is more threatening to our economy because our principal source of revenue—international business—is controlled by individuals who generally are not citizens of Bermuda and often don’t even own a home here. Therefore, if the violence continues to escalate, there is much less reason for them to stick around to find out whether Bermuda can get the violence under control—they will simply move to another country. If even 30% of these companies leave, the economic and social consequences to Bermuda will be devastating;

(iii) Our population is so small, where everybody knows everybody, that jury convictions are more difficult to obtain, witnesses are more reluctant to testify and the urge for retribution for gang shootings is more prevalent, which is a major source of gang recruitment.

(iv) the geographical size of Bermuda is so small that a witness protection program is equivalent to banishment from the island. Therefore the personal cost to a witness is so high that they often choose to remain silent, making it more difficult for police and prosecutors to obtain convictions.

2 Bermuda gangs are at war and to win wars you need firepower and manpower. As a result, the gangs are doing everything they can to bring in more guns and to recruit more members. This recruitment includes coercing school children into gangs by beating them up until they capitulate.

3 We can dramatically reduce gang violence in Bermuda by enacting anti-gang legislation advocated by the United Nations and already enacted in Canada and many other countries. While there are two basic types of anti-gang legislation—(i) making gang membership itself a crime and (i) making criminal gang behavior a crime—only the latter is appropriate for Bermuda because many Bermuda gang members are kids who were coerced into membership. By taking this step—by targeting criminal gang behavior rather than membership—we can focus on swiftly bringing to justice those persons who are terrorizing our community while excluding those who are merely young boys caught in a no-win situation.

4 By adopting the Canadian model that makes gang behavior illegal, we will give police and prosecutors a much bigger stick to (i) negotiate guilty pleas and (ii) get gang members to testify against other gang members. This rebalances the judicial playing field by (i) making up for the difficulty of getting innocent witnesses to testify, many of whom are scared of gang retaliation even after the accused is sent to jail (other gang members will carry out the threat) and (ii) avoiding a contested trial, particularly a jury trial, which makes convictions less certain.

5 Once it becomes clear to the Bermuda gangs that police and prosecutors have a much bigger weapon to battle gang violence, the gangs will have a bigger incentive to sit down with the police to negotiate a truce—all gang members put down their guns and immediately stop the shootings, or face the prospect of spending decades behind bars.

6 We can protect our children from being recruited into gangs by enacting anti-gang recruitment legislation already enacted in the United States and many other countries.

7 We can reduce the threat of gang violence in the future by implementing a continuous garnishment registration program that will (i) increase the income level of single-parent families, (ii) reduce the need for single-parent moms to work a second or third job, thereby increasing the time mothers can spend nurturing their children and helping them with homework, (iii) increase the time fathers spend nurturing their children and helping them with homework, (iv) increase parent and child involvement in community activities, (v) discourage out-of-wedlock pregnancies and (vi) reduce the national debt and thereby also reduce upward pressure on taxes.

8 We can further reduce the threat of gang violence in the future by changing the entire way government gives subsidies by making part of the payment of such subsidies conditional upon the recipient taking parenting and other courses to learn how to more positively guide their children to be contributing members of society.

9 Conclusion:

“We can dramatically reduce the threat of gang violence, a threat that is not only much greater than in most other countries, but also growing much faster; a threat that, if left to continue on its present course, will not only cause the deaths of more and more Bermudians and the inconsolable grief of their loved ones, but will likely result in a mass exodus of international business and with it an end to our way of life for generations to come.

By enacting much needed anti-gang legislation, and by adopting policies to reduce the frequency and depth of those social factors that strongly correlate with at-risk children joining gangs, we can stop our accelerated march toward the abyss and take our first step toward a safer society. But to do so, we must first recognize the full extent of the threat that is now upon us so that we will have the sense of urgency to act swiftly, the knowledge to act wisely, and the courage to act decisively.”

The full text of the speech is below:

Today, I will not be telling you about the number of bullets flying, or the number of Bermudians that have been shot or murdered, or the number of friends and relatives that inconsolably grieve because of the scourge that has victimized this tiny island over the last three years. These tragedies you already know far too well.

Instead, I will discuss the breadth of the threat from gang violence—how that threat is not just to life but to our way of life, why that threat is much greater in Bermuda than in most larger countries and, most importantly, what steps we can take to dramatically reduce that threat both now and in the future.

1. Why the threat is greater in Bermuda than most other countries

While at first glance it may appear that there is nothing exceptional about gang violence in Bermuda—people are being shot by criminal organizations profiting from the drug trade, as in other countries—a closer look will show that, because of Bermuda’s particular vulnerabilities, gang violence is much more threatening to the social and economic foundation of Bermuda than it is in most other countries. Here are two reasons why.

1. Proximity of the violence

Unlike persons living in the UK, USA, Canada and most other geographically-larger countries, every resident in Bermuda lives within virtually one mile of where gang shootings have occurred over the last two years. From St. David’s to Dockyard, gang members have shot victims in the streets, in their homes, on the theatre doorstep, at the local college, in a social club and on a school playground filled with children.

Because of the proximity to our homes, schools and places of work, these shootings pose a much greater threat of physical harm to each and every resident than do the gang shootings in larger countries. I would guess that less than 10% of the residents of Great Britain and Canada live within a mile of the gang shootings in their countries. America would have a higher percentage, but still significantly less than a majority, and nothing like the virtually 100% that Bermuda faces.

2. Threat to our economy

Unlike in the UK, USA, Canada and most other countries, Bermuda’s largest businesses—our International Companies, which collectively generate more than 75% of Bermuda’s direct and indirect income—are not controlled by citizens born and raised here, but rather by foreigners who have significantly less personal connection to this country.

Consequently, as the gang violence worsens, these companies are more likely to move away sooner than if they were located in a country where the chief executives had family and social roots spanning generations. In other words, these executives have less incentive to stick around to see if the threat of gang violence lessens, and a greater incentive to simply move their companies and families somewhere safer if they feel there is an unacceptably high probability of personal harm to themselves, their employees or their wives and children.

And make no mistake about it, even though other countries may have gang violence, that violence is rarely so far reaching that it is within a mile of every home in the country, as it is in Bermuda. Most large countries, such as Switzerland, offer many safe neighbourhoods far away from gang violence.

So even if Bermuda’s violence were to stay at its present level, let alone continue to increase at its present exponential pace, companies may soon start leaving for safer domiciles, particularly if they feel that appropriate steps are not now being taken to curb the violence.

And if even as few as a third of these companies were to leave Bermuda, the ensuing devastation would likely be insurmountable and permanent—the economy would collapse, unemployment would soar, the housing market would plummet, government debt would skyrocket, charitable organizations and social agencies would lose their sources of funding, and crime would increase dramatically, which would likely lead to even more companies leaving Bermuda. Indeed, things would become so bad that everyone would suffer, even the gang members who caused the collapse.

So it is imperative that gang violence not be allowed to grow larger. Which brings us to our next topic.

(B) Why gang violence is likely to grow larger

While there are many socioeconomic reasons why gang violence in Bermuda has, in the words of the Commissioner of Police, gone viral, there are two structural reasons unique to Bermuda that compound the problem by making the job of arresting and successfully prosecuting gang criminals much more difficult, which in turn increases the probability that gang violence in Bermuda will continue to worsen.

1. Our small population size

Unlike the UK, USA, Canada and other large countries, Bermuda’s population is so small that almost every Bermudian either knows the shooter or the victim, or knows someone who knows the shooter or victim. In other words, there are usually only two degrees of separation between each citizen and those involved in the crime. This means that each shooting will personally affect a larger percentage of the population than in other countries, which leads to three problems:

(i) jury convictions are more difficult to obtain. This has always been a problem for Bermuda. Our small population means that it is very common for members of a jury to personally know the accused or a member of his family. They may work together, go to the same church, have gone to the same school or simply have mutual friends, all of which makes it almost impossible to have an unbiased jury and goes a long way to explain why Bermuda juries have historically been reluctant to deliver guilty verdicts. From this, it would not be unreasonable to conclude that gang members on trial are less likely to be found guilty by a jury in Bermuda than in the UK, USA, Canada and other large countries.

(ii) witnesses are less likely to come forward. As with jury members, so with witnesses. If the witness is friendly with the uncle or mother or cousin of the accused, he is less likely to jeopardize that relationship by providing police with the evidence and testimony needed to convict, which again makes gang convictions in Bermuda less likely than in other countries.

(iii) the urge for retaliation is much more prevalent and gang recruitment much easier. While it is true that in all countries each gang shooting and gang murder will evoke strong emotions from those close to the victim, in a tightly-woven community like Bermuda, where virtually everyone directly or indirectly knows everyone, a much larger percentage of our population will fall into that category.

Unfortunately, one of the most common emotions that arise from these killings is the urge to retaliate. Gangs, fully aware of the strength of that urge, are using retaliation as a primary weapon in their ongoing drive to recruit new members.

And make no mistake about it; gangs are actively recruiting like never before. Why? Because gangs are warring with other gangs, and to fight wars you need two things: firepower and manpower.

That means that these gangs have a strong incentive not only to import more and more guns but also to actively recruit more and more members because by doing so they not only increase their power to wage battle both now in the future, but they also increase their ability to sell more drugs thereby increasing their personal wealth.

Unfortunately, the targets of increased gang recruitment don’t end with those seeking retribution.

If you speak to just about any informed social worker, government senior-school teacher or police officer, they will tell you that Bermuda gang members are actively pursuing adolescent boys to join their gangs.

While some of this teenage recruitment is in the form of peer pressure—young gang boys trying to persuade other boys to succumb to the lure of anti-establishment danger—it also often includes threats of violence.

One Berkeley Institute teacher told me that when she asked one of her good students why he joined a gang, he told her that he got jumped after school by a bunch of boys who threatened to keep attacking him until he joined the gang. Another student said he had no choice—his dad, a long-time gang member, forced him to join.

Unfortunately, the threats of violence to these young boys don’t end there. If a boy tries to leave the gang, he also faces the constant threat of physical harm.

2. Our small geographic size means a Witness Protection Program has limited value in Bermuda

Even though gang shootings over the last three years have exponentially grown to the point that they are threatening the social and economic stability of Bermuda, witnesses are reluctant to come forward. Sometimes it is because they personally know the accused or know his family and don’t want to jeopardize those relationships. But far too often they are simply scared.

They know that many of these gang shootings are either part of a drug war or made in retaliation for other shootings of gang members. In other words, these gang members have no qualms about shooting and killing for profit or revenge, and it doesn’t take a very large leap in logic for witnesses to conclude that there is a reasonable likelihood that if they give evidence against a gang member that sends him to prison, his fellow gang members will seek revenge by harming the witness or his or her family.

This mounting fear of retaliation was heightened by the recent shooting of an innocent man standing next to a neighbour who only days earlier had given testimony against gang members, one of whom wore a t-shirt emblazoned with the words “Stop Snitching.”

The government has offered a witness-protection program to encourage witnesses to come forward. Unfortunately, because of the geographically small size of the island, it is impossible to successfully relocate a witness within Bermuda—the gang members would know his or her whereabouts within days. Consequently, the only viable witness-protection program would be one based on the banishment of the witness and his or her family from their native country, a very high price to pay for helping police and prosecutors bring these criminals to justice.

So when the potential witness weighs the high personal costs to himself against the benefits to society, he or she will often choose silence, leaving the police and prosecutors with insufficient evidence to bring the offenders to justice. Unfortunately, this not only results in violent gang criminals remaining at large, but it also encourages even more violence because crimes with a low probability of punishment will surely be repeated.

In other words, the exponential rise in gang violence over the last three years should be expected to continue unless significantly more witnesses make the courageous choice to risk harm to themselves and their families by giving testimony against these criminals, or police and prosecutors are given new tools to bring to justice those gang members who shoot and kill others.

Enough with the bad news; now some good news.

Part 2

What We can do to Reduce Gang Violence Now

In November 2000 the General Assembly of the United Nations passed a resolution approving the “United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime.” This convention, which has been ratified by 147 countries including Great Britain, the United States and Canada, advocates the enactment of sweeping legislation by each participating country to combat criminal organizations, including gangs.

The convention recognizes that criminal gangs have collectively skewed the playing field in their favour by hiding behind the protections granted under the laws of an open and democratic society while using violence and retaliation to undermine the operation of the rule of law that protects our way of life.

Typically, a criminal acting alone has only limited ability to threaten, intimidate or cause physical harm to a witness because the criminal is imprisoned either before or soon after the witness gives testimony. But when the criminal is a member of a gang, the threat of physical harm to the witness continues after incarceration of the criminal—the other gang members remain at large to carry out the threat—making it much less likely that witnesses will provide police and prosecutors with the testimony needed to prosecute. In this way, the gang structure not only supports criminal behavior, but it undermines the rule of law that protects the innocent and punishes the guilty.

The UNTOC convention advocates that each country adopt new laws that bring back into balance the unlevel playing field constructed by criminal gangs.

Many countries have done just that. Some countries such as Australia and several Central American countries have made gang membership itself a criminal offense (in El Salvador gang membership is punishable by five years in prison, in Honduras 30) while other countries such as Canada have instead enacted legislation that targets the criminal behavior of gang members.

Our present desire to immediately end the gang violence in Bermuda might entice us to adopt the more-draconian law that makes mere membership in a gang an indictable offence with a long prison term—”Let’s just lock them all up,” you say—but when you consider that some of these gang members are young boys that have only joined the gang to avoid being beaten up on their way home from school, you realize that this approach is not appropriate for Bermuda. These coerced young kids need protection not incarceration.

The more appropriate route, one that accords with our fundamental principle of law that only wrongful acts should be criminal offenses, is to adopt legislation similar to the Canadian model. By taking this step—by targeting criminal gang behavior rather than membership—we can focus on swiftly bringing to justice those persons who are terrorizing our community while excluding those who are merely young boys caught in a no-win situation.

So let’s look at the Canadian legislation and see what would happen if we adopted similar legislation in Bermuda.

Canada has made it a criminal offense (i) punishable for up to five years in prison, for a person to contribute to the activities of a criminal gang in a way that enhances its ability to commit a crime, (ii) punishable for up to 14 years in prison, for a person to commit an indictable offence for the benefit of, or in association with, a criminal gang, and (iii) punishable for up to life in prison, for a member of a criminal gang to instruct another person to commit a criminal offence for the benefit of, or in association with that gang.

Most importantly, the Canadian legislation makes it mandatory that each sentence of imprisonment for the above offences runs consecutively to all other sentences. To further strengthen its ability to fight organized crime, the Canadian government has just announced its intention to also limit the ability of gang members to obtain early parole for gang-related offences.

If Bermuda were to rebalance its criminal justice system by enacting legislation similar to Canada’s, it would fundamentally improve Bermuda’s ability to reduce gang violence and the threat it poses to our way of life.

To illustrate the point, let’s look at a hypothetical situation. Let’s say there was a gang member who lent his car to three other gang members that shot three men on Court Street. (Sound familiar?) Let’s make the reasonable assumption that the Director of Public Prosecutions offers him a deal—in exchange for his testimony against the gang members who did the shooting, all charges against him would be dropped. When the gang member explains that he is scared to give the names of the shooters for fear of retribution, the DPP offers to put him in a witness-protection program, sending him overseas with a new identity.

If convicted under the present laws of Bermuda, the gang member would likely receive a maximum prison sentence of six years and, with good behavior, would get early parole and be back on the street after serving only two years. So he likely would turn down the deal. A simple cost-benefit analysis would convince him that it is better to serve two years in prison and then be free, than to testify against his fellow gang-members and then be banished forever from his family, friends and country of birth.

However, if Bermuda were to enact the Canadian legislation, the gang member’s consideration of the offer would be completely different. As a gang member that committed an indictable offence for the benefit of a gang, he would be looking at an additional 14 years in prison without early parole (i.e., a total of 20 years in prison with the chance to get out on parole only after serving 16 years).

The gang member’s cost-benefit analysis would have fundamentally changed such that he would be much more likely to want to avoid 16 years in prison by accepting the offer of a new life in another country in exchange for his testimony against the criminals who shot the three men.

In other words, the adoption of the Canadian anti-gang legislation rebalances the playing field by giving police and prosecutors a much stronger position to negotiate guilty pleas and obtain testimony instrumental to the prosecution and reduction of gang violence.

Indeed, in the present example, the negotiating power derived from the Canadian legislation has the potential to go even further in prosecuting and reducing gang violence.

Each of those identified gang members who did the shooting would also face an additional 14 years in prison without any chance of early parole in addition to any other sentence they would receive for attempted murder, probably totaling more than 20 years in prison. These men could also be offered a deal—the prospect of a shorter sentence (perhaps served in another country to avoid gang retaliation) in exchange for evidence and testimony against any of a whole host of gang criminals, including anyone who has shot someone, ordered a shooting, sold drugs, laundered drug money or imported guns into Bermuda.

But the benefits derived from the adoption of the Canadian legislation go even further. Once it becomes clear to the Bermuda gangs that police and prosecutors have a much bigger weapon to battle gang violence, the gangs will have a bigger incentive to sit down with the police to negotiate a truce—all gang members put down their guns and immediately stop the shootings, or face the prospect of spending decades behind bars.

As strange as it may sound, some gang members may welcome this imposed truce. They already will have realized that in the present retaliatory world of spiraling gang violence their chances of living more than another year or two is quickly approaching zero. But, unfortunately, even those who want to put down their guns, can’t, at least not unilaterally, because that would expose them to the retaliatory whims of their armed foes who at present face limited consequences for their criminal actions.

The enactment of the Canadian legislation gives gang members and this country a way out of this madness. By giving police and prosecutors a very big stick that forces all gang members to put down their guns or face very long prison sentences, these gang members will have the opportunity to avoid an early death and Bermuda will have the opportunity to once again become a quiet, safe island that truly is another world.

Part 3

What We can do to Reduce Gang Violence in the Future

An overwhelming number of Bermuda’s gang members, like their American counterparts, are from (i) low-income, single-parent homes, (ii) with minimal father input, (iii) who do poorly in school (often because of lack of parental involvement), and (iv) have little sense of belonging to family or the community and often seek to fulfill that need through gang membership.

While we are unlikely to ever completely eliminate the existence of these four factors that together strongly correlate with gang membership, there is much we can do to reduce the frequency and depth of these contributing factors, and thereby dramatically reduce the probability of these at-risk children becoming gang members in the future.

The key is to implement policies and programs that address each of these four contributing factors. In other words, we should implement policies that (i) decrease the financial needs of at-risk families, (ii) increase the involvement of fathers with their children, (iii) encourage parents to become more involved in their children’s education and (iv) increase the community involvement of these at-risk children.

Here are three ways we can do just that.

1. Reducing the problem of low income, single-parent homes with minimal father input (while also lowering the national debt)

The frequency and depth of these first two contributing factors (boys who grow up in low-income, single-parent homes with minimal father input) can be dramatically reduced by implementing a program that (i) assists single moms to collect delinquent child-support payments from fathers who, at present, contribute neither money nor time toward their children’s upbringing and (ii) encourages these fathers to spend more time with their children.

Under our present system, a mother seeking to obtain child-support payments must go to Court to obtain a judgment ordering the father to make those payments. When the father simply refuses to pay, the mother then must go back to court for a garnishment order that can be served upon the father’s employer ordering that company to deduct support payments from the father’s salary.

This may sound like a good system—and sometimes it works—but far too often these fathers simply change jobs, thereby forcing the moms to start all over again. With limited time and finances the mothers often have little choice but to give up their quest for child support. The result: mothers who have to work longer hours to pay the rent and put food on the table, thereby leaving even less time for them to properly nurture their children by (i) instilling in them proper moral principles, (ii) providing help and guidance with their education (particularly in the early formative years) and (iii) giving them a sense of belonging that comes from strong family and community involvement.

We can improve this inefficient and ineffective system by implementing a program under which government (i) helps single moms obtain the required court order against delinquent fathers and (ii) registers the garnishment order on a computerized national registry that constitutes continuous notice to all Bermuda employers. Under this system the father will no longer be able to avoid payment merely by changing jobs because registration on the national registry will constitute continuous notice to all Bermuda employers, both at the time of registration and in the future.

It works like this. Prior to paying salaries, each company will be required to enter the social security number of all its employees into a computerized national registry system. This may sound like a large task, but it really just requires a one-time input of employees’ social security numbers, and thereafter it takes only one computer click to receive a computerized response. Any moneys owing under a garnishment order will be deducted from the delinquent father’s pay-cheque and remitted to the single mom. The program will not only provide much needed assistance to struggling moms, but it will dramatically lower government expenditures on housing and other social assistance programs, thereby lowering the national debt and decreasing pressure to increase taxes.

But there is even more that we can do. Once it becomes clear to fathers that they can no longer escape responsibility for child-support payments, the program can allow for a negotiated reduction in payments in exchange for fathers spending more time with their children. For instance, the original garnishment order can be for an amount equal to, say, 25% of the father’s salary, with provision that it be lowered to a lesser amount, say, 20% if the father agrees to certain conditions such as (i) spending at least 10 hours a week helping his children with their homework and playing with them at a community centre (like the Sandys 360 Centre) or coaching their football or cricket teams and (ii) taking a parenting course to learn how best to nurture his children and help them with their educational endeavors.

The implementation of this National Garnishment Registry System will (i) increase the income level of single-parent families, (ii) reduce the need for single-parent moms to work a second or third job, thereby increasing the time mothers can spend nurturing their children and helping them with homework, (iii) increase the time fathers spend nurturing their children, (iv) increase parent and child involvement in community activities, (v) discourage out-of-wedlock pregnancies and (vi) reduce the national debt and thereby also reduce upward pressure on taxes. The first five of these outcomes should dramatically reduce the number of at-risk children joining gangs in the future.

2. Changing the way government gives subsidies

Although the creation of a national garnishment registry system will reduce the need for government expenditure on rent subsidies to single-parent moms, there will still be some Bermudian families that will need government assistance to pay their lower rent. We must help these families. No one in Bermuda should be homeless. But if we simply give money to these families, we run the risk of creating a dependency on government, thereby in the long run making these families weaker.

We can change that outcome by structuring these subsidies, as well as all other government subsidies, so that wherever possible they have an incentive for family self-improvement built into the payment structure.

For instance, instead of simply paying a family $1,500 a month in rent subsidy, we should pay them only $1,000 a month in subsidy, but agree to pay them an additional $500 a month if they take a family-learning course on how they can more effectively become better parents, which will include information on the need to become more involved in their children’s education to help their children become better students.

It is this fundamental change in government’s method of providing assistance—from simple subsidies to family-value empowerment incentives—that can help our at-risk families become better families, and our taxpayers see more value for their dollars spent.

3. Protecting children from being recruited into gangs

So what do we do to protect our school children from being recruited into criminal gangs?

This problem is not unique to Bermuda. Fortunately, many countries have already developed legislation to help protect vulnerable children from gang recruitment. For instance, in America, 48 of 50 states have passed legislation to curtail criminal street gangs’ threat to society, including enacting anti-recruitment laws that make it a criminal offense to solicit or recruit another individual to become a member of a criminal street gang. Sentences for violations vary depending on whether (i) physical violence is threatened, (ii) the individual being solicited is a minor, (iii) the solicitation occurs within 1,000 feet of a school and (iv) initiation into the gang requires the commission of an indictable offence.

By enacting similar legislation, Bermuda will not only protect its young teenagers from being coerced into criminal gangs, but it also will inhibit the ability of gangs to increase both their membership and their collective threat against all of us now and in the future.

Summary

History is replete with examples of prosperous nations that have collapsed because they failed to recognize the full extent of the threat that was upon them. Bermuda must not make the same mistake.

We can dramatically reduce the threat of gang violence, a threat that is not only much greater than in most other countries, but also growing much faster; a threat that, if left to continue on its present course, will not only cause the deaths of more and more Bermudians and the inconsolable grief of their loved ones, but will likely result in a mass exodus of international business and with it an end to our way of life for generations to come.

By enacting much needed anti-gang legislation, and by adopting policies to reduce the frequency and depth of those social factors that strongly correlate with at-risk children joining gangs, we can stop our accelerated march toward the abyss and take our first step toward a safer society. But to do so, we must first recognize the full extent of the threat that is now upon us so that we will have the sense of urgency to act swiftly, the knowledge to act wisely, and the courage to act decisively.

Thank you.

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