Labelling suspects gang members before conviction is fear mongering: lawyers

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Labelling suspects gang members before conviction is fear mongering: lawyers

Some Calgary lawyers say the police practice of calling someone a gang member even if that person has not been convicted of a gang-related offence is damaging to their clients. 

"The police are behind what I would characterize as a fear-mongering campaign," said defence lawyer David Chow. 

Chow's clients have been publicly labelled gang members in press releases issued by the Calgary police — even though none of them has ever been convicted of participating in a criminal organization, an offence under the Criminal Code.  The force's deputy police chief admitted the practice is unfair in an interview with CBC News aired on Monday. Murray Stooke said investigators use general criteria to determine whether someone is a gang member.  Chow said he believes police name someone as a gang member as a public relations ploy because investigators don't have enough evidence. 

"When you can get what you want by talking, why risk losing that and having a judge decide against you," he said on Tuesday. 

Court of public opinion vs. court of justice 

Rollie LaHaye, a criminologist with Calgary's Mount Royal College, said it's likely police have enough information to convince the public that suspects are linked to gangs but not enough proof to make those claims stand up in court. 

"That aspect could be dangerous because in many ways, it does set up prejudicial elements against that individual," he said. 

Lawyer Raj Sharma said his client [the accused] has been unfairly labelled a gang member. [the accused], a convicted drug trafficker, has been fighting extradition from Canada since 2004. Calgary police have testified several times against [the accused]’s application to remain in the country, stating that he is a public safety risk because of attempts on his life by rival gangs. 

"He's never been convicted of organized criminality by a criminal court of Canada. Yet, here we are facing [the accused]'s reputation as … perhaps the most well-known gangster in Calgary," said Sharma. 

"I think people should be very concerned that individuals get a fair hearing, that due process is accorded." 

Calgary police said the force stops considering someone a gang member if he or she avoids any criminal charges and any perceived contact with gangs or gang activity for two consecutive years.  On Monday, police spokesman Kevin Brookwell said that the force will consider changing its practice to instead use the term "person known to police" or explain that someone is a known gang member based on the police's criteria. 

General criteria used by Calgary police to identify gang members

  • Criminal history
  • Confidential informant from a gang
  • Confidential informant from a rival gang
  • Confidential informant from a third party
  • Police observation of association with a gang member
  • Self-admission
  • Tattoos, markings or other symbols
  • Direct or indirect involvement in gang activity

May 12, 2009