COVER

THE YOUNG OFFENDERS

A WAVE OF TEENAGE CRIME SHOCKS OTTAWA

E. KAYE FULTON May 18 1992
COVER

THE YOUNG OFFENDERS

A WAVE OF TEENAGE CRIME SHOCKS OTTAWA

E. KAYE FULTON May 18 1992

THE YOUNG OFFENDERS

COVER

A WAVE OF TEENAGE CRIME SHOCKS OTTAWA

In a quiet suburban neighborhood this spring, police intervened when two gangs of 11-year-old Grade 6 students fought in the street with steel bars and knives. Across the city, in a series of violent incidents involving teenagers during the same week in March, one was hit with a hammer at a bus stop; two female teenagers assaulted a third in a dispute over a boyfriend; and three 10-yearold boys physically accosted a nine-year-old and stripped him of his running shoes, baseball cap

and Oakland Raiders jacket. Last week, an elderly Asian man walking home in the downtown area at 1 a.m. was beaten with a pool ball by local members of a gang of teenage skinheads. The violent occurrences were characteristic of police charge sheets in the larger North American cities. But they happened in Ottawa, and they mirrored a wave of crime committed by youthful gang members that afflicts cities across Canada.

Until recently, teenage crime in Ottawa

mostly involved shoplifting and other forms of theft. But during the past 18 months, a loosely organized network of teenage gangs, with names such as the Overbrook Bad Boys, the Nasty Girls and the Nigger Posse, have begun to terrorize Ottawa’s school yards, shopping malls and transit depots. According to officials of the Ottawa police, teenage assaults are often carried out for the purpose of stealing specific brands of clothing as part of a set of initiation rites imposed by gang leaders. Other crimes,

they say, are committed for the thrill of dominating weaker individuals.

Ottawa police officials add that they have handled about 1,500 incidents involving teenage violence since last September. In the same period, an average of two teenagers a day have been charged with criminal offences, including one murder charge and charges of robbery, assault and possession of concealed weapons. Said Sgt. Dennis St. Louis of the Ottawa police youth unit: “What is disturbing is that most of the kids we deal with are not your traditional bad actors. But the repercussions of their acts don’t seem to bother them.”

Weapons: The escalating use of weapons and violence as a means of settling disputes or gaining peer status is one of Ottawa’s—and Canada’s—fastest-rising types of crime. According to a 1991 Statistics Canada report, violent-crime charges involving youths between the ages of 12 and 19 have increased by 70 per cent across the country since 1987—a higher rate of increase than in any other age

category. Experts blame the surge in youth violence on a number of social forces, including the high number of single-parent homes, economic pressures and movie and television violence. According to Carey MacLellan, an Ottawa lawyer who often defends teenagers charged with violent crimes, there are “a lot of disenfranchised kids roaming around totally out of control. I know some middleand upper-class kids who will go to school with a shotgun. These are kids who are good at school, good at sports, but they’ll saw off their dad’s shotgun because it is cool to have it under your coat.” Carryl Potter, head of the guidance department at Ottawa’s Confederation High School, says that problems are caused by parents who ignore their teenage children because “they don’t have the time. They are worn out. They work and sometimes have more than one job.” Flurry: Much of Ottawa’s youth crime remains hidden from the general public. Many victims of so-called swarmings—incidents in which the victim is surrounded by teenagers and assaulted or robbed in a flurry of violence—are often reluctant to press charges. Teenagers interviewed by Maclean ’s in the Rideau Centre, a popular shopping mall and gathering place for youths a block from Parliament Hill, said that there is little point

resisting an attack or risking reprisal by calling the police. Said Shawn Hatt, a 14-year-old student: “I’ve had it happen to me. A big gang of guys comes up and surrounds you and if you don’t give them what they want, they beat the crap out of you. If you have brains, you give them what they want.”

Of 100 swarming cases reported to Ottawa police since September, about one-third reached the courts. Only youths from the ages of 12 to 17 can be charged with criminal offences under the Young Offenders Act. According to police, there were 64 assaults and 24 thefts reported since September in Ottawa’s elementary schools—many of them crimes committed by children under 12. In a tough message to youth gangs last February, one Ottawa youth-court judge ordered teenagers in a hallway into his courtroom to hear him increase the normal two-month sentence for assault to seven months in closed custody for a 15-year-old convicted of stealing another teenager’s baseball cap.

The authorities in Ottawa are fighting back in other ways. Working closely with four Ottawa school boards, the Ottawa police last September set up a 21-member squad to concentrate on breaking up gangs involving students. Eight officers regularly conduct high-profile patrols in and around Ottawa’s 24 public high schools and 103 elementary schools. Daniel Wiseman, head of the social services branch of the Ottawa Board of Education, said that the presence of police is intended to reassure students as well as deter crime. Added Wiseman: “If you lose the sense of security in schools, you’ve lost the last bastion of safety for children.”

Victims: Despite the attack on juvenile crime, police officers themselves are sometimes victims. In April, an officer was swarmed in a shopping mall and had his nightstick stolen. Another suffered back injuries when young people in a parking lot attacked him with a piece of pipe. And while the rates of teenage crime in Ottawa still remain below that of larger urban centres such as Toronto and Vancouver, authorities in Ottawa said that they are alarmed by the growing violence of teenage crimes.

Shoppers in the lower concourse of the Rideau Centre watched in horror Feb. 5 as a group of skinheads wearing heavy black boots and bomber jackets engaged in a racially provoked brawl with a group of dark-skinned teenagers. Other young people are turning to highly organized forms of theft. Police said that an attempted robbery of a downtown store in February involved youths carrying cellular telephones. Const. Daniel Dunlop, who specializes in gang-related crime, recently uncovered evidence of a gang of teenage car thieves who, he said, engaged in training exercises aimed at avoiding police surveillance. Said Dunlop: “Some of these kids can steal a car in 20 seconds. They steal four or five cars at a time and stash them in different parts of the city so they can use them if they’re chased by cops.”

Some observers contend that the incidence of crime involving teenagers has not risen as dramatically as police portray. Walter De Keseredy, a Carleton University sociologist, argues that some teenage offences in the past would have been classified as mischief rather than as crimes. And he says that the recent crackdown by Ottawa schools and the police department on teenage criminals may be part of a strategy designed to support demands for increased funding in a time of budget restraint. Said De Keseredy, who has studied the skinhead movement in the United States: “I am not trivializing the extent of the problem, but teen crime is not new.”

But the extent and seriousness of it clearly are. Said Sgt. St. Louis: “At the rate we’re going, we’ll be lucky to get out of the school year without a drive-by shooting.” That is a chilling assessment. But in the nation’s capital, it is a warning that schools, parents and teenagers cannot afford to ignore.

E. KAYE FULTON

LUKE FISHER