In 2002 Toronto Mayor Mel Lastman reached out to shake the hand of a member of the Hells Angels, unleashing a fire storm of protest from police officials in Ontario. Gerald Tremblay, the mayor of Montréal at the time who, unlike mayor Lastman, had an understanding and appreciation of what the Hells Angels were all about condemned it as well.
In Winnipeg this week the publication of a photo showing Winnipeg’s mayor wearing a big grin and posing with former gang members, some with charges still outstanding, didn’t seem to ruffle too many feathers.
Seven years ago mayor Lastman attempted to deflect criticism by using the ignorance defense, claiming he did not know who the Hells Angels were. Winnipeg’s mayor employed a similar defense, claiming ignorance of the fact that any of the men he was posing with had outstanding criminal charges. It worked for Lastman. Or did it?
In the Toronto case the mayor’s actions were soundly criticized by then Toronto Police Chief Julian Fantino as well as the head of the police union.
Mayor Katz probably does not have to worry that his actions will be criticized by the Winnipeg police. The Mayor is invoking the ‘police made me do it’ line of defense to bolster the ‘I didn’t know’ defense. According to the mayor the only reason he posed for the picture was because the police asked him to do it.
Police in Winnipeg say the photo will be helpful in conducting background checks. Does that suggest that the background checks were not conducted and the personal histories of these people were not known prior to the police service advising or asking the mayor to pose for the picture?
This would seem to be a situation where either the mayor is receiving bad advice from the ‘experts’, or he is exercising poor judgment in terms of dealing with the advice he is receiving. Perhaps the so called experts in this instance are also lacking better judgment.
Enlisting the help of ‘reformed’ gang members to help fight the gang problem is not new to Winnipeg. Former Chief of Police Dave Cassels got himself in a lot of hot water over the issue. More recently the Pappiiwak halfway house fiasco illustrated the pitfalls of taking the word of ex gang members at face value.
When governments are approached by former gang members wanting to initiate gang prevention programs, governments have the upper hand. These people want something, usually funding. This puts government in the driver’s seat. At a very minimum government and the police should:
- Check for outstanding warrants;
- Conduct a criminal record check;
- Conduct an in-depth background investigation similar to the kind the police do on prospective recruits;
- Insist that those involved have been pardoned, or at a minimum, have applied for a pardon.
This is not to suggest that gang prevention strategies cannot or should not involve ‘flying with the crows’. Flying with the crows, however, comes with its own set of risks. By taking the appropriate measures up front one can at least be prepared.
Of prime importance is that governments, when they embark on gang prevention strategies involving ex-criminals, ensure they are indeed ex-criminals. There must at a minimum be a ‘do no further harm’ guarantee. There must be a high (very high) probability that those enrolled in such programs will be helped, not further corrupted.