It’s Friday at 3 p.m. and while the sun hasn’t yet set, Surrey’s gang squad is already prepping for the night ahead.
It all begins with a briefing, an update from Sergeant Mike Sanchez, who gives them the skinny on the month’s achievements, both on the street, and in the courtroom.
“We’ve got an update from Crown,” Sanchez tells the crew on March 1. “This morning Deepkaran Mann entered a guilty plea for AWW – assault with a weapon – dangerous driving and breach (of undertaking) on two files. He remains in custody and his sentencing has been adjourned.”
“That’s actually pretty significant,” Sanchez added, noting he’s “out of our hair” for a time.
As for their efforts on the streets in February?
“Not bad,” says Sanchez. “We checked approximately 311 people, we had 98 vehicles that we checked. There were 139 files, GOs, self-generated GOs, and 61 street checks.”
A “GO” stands for general occurrence, and it describes any files created proactively: In other words, it was not called in by the public but was initiated by officers on patrol.
“Only one (Criminal Code) charge. One 90-day Immediate Roadside Prohibition… four drug files, two vehicles seized and 11 IPP checks,” he adds, referring to the “Inadmissible Patrons Program,” Surrey’s new program similar to Vancouver’s Bar Watch.
“And two firearms seized.”
With that, the team set out for the night.
One of the Surrey Gang Enforcement Team members on duty is Constable Ryan Schwerdfeger, who is gearing up for a night of “targeted enforcement on individuals associated to drug trafficking.”
That will entail curfew checks on some violent criminals, IPP checks and proactive patrols of “key hot spots” the RCMP identify through analytics.
“It’s important the public knows we’re not just out there for enforcement,” says Schwerdfeger.
“Everyone that’s in this unit cares about people that are out there, both the community and believe it or not, the people involved in drugs and gang activity.”
His shift begins cruising around Newton, around Cedar Hills and closer to the Delta border.
Anecdotally, it’s safe to assume that Newton and Whalley would be where the bulk of the action is, and Schwerdfeger said that’s generally in line with their reality.
It wasn’t a particularly dramatic shift: A couple of traffic stops, a curfew check on a rather violent offender and a visit to South Surrey’s Cactus Club to see if any known gangsters would need to be escorted out of the building.
And, around 8 p.m., reports of an altercation between people in two vehicles led to the search of a Hummer, and a $75 ticket after finding bear spray.
But Schwerdfeger has had his fair share of dramatic busts.
He recalled a traffic stop leading to a bust of $4 million in cocaine and heroin.
“And that was wholesale, not street value,” he added.
While enforcement is, of course, a large part of the gang squad’s job, Schwerdfeger said that engaging with people is equally important in the line of duty.
“Just being human. And being approachable,” he said.
“Engaging with people that are involved in the lifestyle, engaging with the community… whether it be waving at a kid who’s five or 10 years old… or taking a moment to speak to the mom who’s frantic because their son or daughter is involved in this life and they don’t know what to do with themselves. Or being that, I won’t say father figure, but that authority figure or voice of reason for someone who just doesn’t understand where their life is headed.”
Schwerdfeger explains the job often entails spending hours with parents, “giving them insight, things to look for, how to get their child out of the life.”
“I think it’s important for parents just to keep in touch with their kids…. Be involved in your kids’ life as best you can, be nosey. Be a parent, you don’t have to be their best friend,” he stressed.
Schwerdfeger said another part of the job is trying to stop youth from continuing down a path into gang life.
“I’ve had countless conversations with guys about why they got into this life, how they’re going to get out, some of them know they’re not going to get out. Unfortunately a lot of those guys I’ve talked to, some of them are dead,” he added.
Schwerdfeger said there’s a perception that police are “just out there to get people.”
“And there’s certain people out there that need to be arrested, need to be put in jail, but there’s also a lot of people out there who just need our help. I’d say everyone on this team is here to help somebody. Take all the time in their day, hours after their shift, if they can help that one person get away from the clutches of gangs.”
The age of the youth Surrey’s gang squad interacts with is shocking. Some kids as young as 13 are heavily entrenched in the clutches of gang life.
“One kid was 13 and bagging dope in hotels,” Schwerdfeger said.
Schwerdfeger noted the gang squad is building trust with the South Asian community: It’s intentional that the Gang Enforcement Team has several South Asian members on it. Some who grew up in the community.
“You live in this community, where you’re surrounded by other South Asian people, then you have white cops around who don’t speak your language. Connection is a good start.”
The squad is also doing a lot of work off the streets by way of its Shattering the Image presentation, a Surrey-focused version of the provincial End Gang Life program delivered to high schools in areas where youth are known to be involved in gangs but perhaps even more importantly, to students in elementary schools that feed into those secondary schools.
Mostly the presentation is being delivered in schools, but it’s grown to also include businesses and even in mosques.
Surrey RCMP have gone to the media in year’s past, noting hesitancy from some South Asian residents to come forward with information in past gang conflicts. Sergeant Sanchez says the talks are breaking down those barriers, noting the gang unit’s Muslim members are helping deliver them.
“There’s a little bit of trust now between the community and some of our officers, so they’re more willing to talk,” said Sanchez.
In the presentation’s first iteration, officers told the story of Sean Kelly, a boy who Sanchez once worked with as a school liaison at LA Matheson Secondary. Years later, once in the gang squad, Sanchez entered a briefing to see Kelly’s mugshot on a wall – he was one of the “top targets” that day.
Kelly was later shot in a Whalley driveway in 2016 and died in hospital.
That story inspired Sanchez to pitch the Shattering the Image program, with the idea of reaching kids earlier and de-glamourizing gang life by educating them of the horror and tragedy of gang life.
It’s now been presented to all Surrey high schools and close to half of the city’s elementary schools, said Sanchez.
In Shattering the Image 2.0, the story will again include Kelly, but also the story of Constable Gary Sidhu who Sanchez also worked with at LA Matheson Secondary. Sidhu took a very different path than Kelly, ending up as a Surrey gang cop instead.
The new presentation will be all about “mentorship and leadership,” said Sanchez, noting it’s hoped the youth “recirculate” the message and share it with younger kids.
It’s expected to be rolled out after spring break, starting with LA Matheson, the school where the inspiration came from.The team is also developing a girl’s program, Sanchez noted, adding the issue doesn’t just affect boys.
“The coolest thing about all this is the members who are typically Type A personalities, geared towards enforcement, they’re now learning how to be different police officers and have different tools in their belt.”