Five days of holiday gun violence in Surrey leaves death and soul searching in its wake

Published in the Vancouver Observer news site |  January 1, 2012  |  Circulation: 100,000 average monthly readers.

Flowers and candles mark the Christmas Day shooting of Alok Gupta at a Surrey grocery store. Photo by David P. Ball.

The shooting scene of student Alok Gupta – who was filling in for friends at their corner store when he was killed on Christmas Day – is marked by three fresh bouquets of flowers placed near the door, with several candles melted into the concrete in front of a darkened corner store.

Five consecutive daily shootings since Christmas Eve – all but one fatal, and all but one in Surrey – have set off alarm bells for what 2012 may portend for the Lower Mainland.

But with police assuring the public that the killings are not gang-related, and Surrey politicians sticking by their crime reduction strategy, are these shootings unhappy New Year’s omens, or statistical false alarms driven by if-bleeds-it-leads journalism?

“The media is quick to jump on Surrey whenever there is violence, be it gun-related, domestic violence, or gang related,” said Pardeep Sahota, head of Surrey’s Progressive Intercultural Community Services (PICS). “I think many Surrey residents would agree when they say they don’t live in constant fear of stray bullets, gang members, or gun violence.

“I feel that Surrey gets the reputation of having gun problems, gang violence, and issues with domestic violence because there is a large immigrant population here and media tends to emphasize the role that certain immigrant groups have when it comes to violent crimes.”

Sahota told the Vancouver Observer that a larger focus needs to be on why it is so easy to obtain guns in B.C. Sahota and others argued the recent shootings must be put in context.

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“There’s no comfort to victims of crime in the statistics,” said Surrey city councillor Barinder Rasode, “but the stats do show it.

“I understand for a family that’s gone through this now, stats don’t mean much. But this rash of recent murders is really an anomaly – violent crime has actually gone down.”

According to the RCMP, violent crimes in Surrey in the first half of 2011 – the latest report available – dropped eight per cent from last year, to 3,737 – the “lowest number since 2005,” Rasode said.

Likewise, drug offences dropped 15 per cent to 1,010 – although the long-range numbers are rising, Rasode said, primarily because increased police enforcement efforts.

“If the police are more aggressive — undercover operations and more street checks and more search warrants — they will catch more people with drugs, resulting in more charges,” she added.

Rasode — who chairs Surrey’s Crime Reduction Strategy Working Group — directed VO to the program’s website, which states: “Crime reduction begins and ends with taking effective preventative measures, which address the root causes of crime.”

Such a “holistic” approach, Rasode said, includes early childhood education programs, youth gang-prevention programs, mental health support services, and involving community groups as stakeholders. But too often the public – guided by the media – are quick to ignore statistics in favour of sensational headlines.

“Stories about Surrey make the front page,” she said. “Media reports on crime rarely put it into proportion.

“These stories across the entire year would paint a different picture. We are a significantly large metro city, we’re growing. We also have the largest number of young people of any community in Canada. All those factors do make a difference.”

Gun violence made the headlines recently with a spate of shootings around Christmas. Starting on Christmas Eve with the killing of Bradley McPherson, 28, outside a Surrey house party, deadly shootings – which police insisted were unrelated – continued daily.

On Christmas morning, a 54-year-old Surrey woman was shot in the chest on King George Boulevard. She survived.

Alok Gupta, 27, was shot later the same day in a robbery while filling in a shift for the owners of Ken’s Grocery on Surrey’s 96th Avenue.

On Boxing Day, Jeremy Olivier Bettan, 38, was killed in his driveway after his Mercedes-Benz luxury sport utility vehicle was sprayed by at least eight bullets in Langley’s quiet Walnut Grove neighbourhood.

The day after, Apollo-Lyn Simpson, 28, was shot and killed on 125th Street, Surrey. His friends and family held a vigil last night in Holland Park.

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Gupta’s story, in particular, seems to have grabbed the public’s attention – andmade headlines in India. Gupta – who moved to Canada from India to study business at Kwantlen University – had worked at Ken’s Grocery for several months and offered to take the Christmas Day shift so the owner’s could have the holiday with their family. Police believe Gupta was shot while being robbedat gunpoint.

“My son had no rivalry with anyone and was innocent,” his father told the Hindustan Times. “My nephew, who lives in Canada, has been handed over the body and will be sending it to us here. We want Alok to get justice and the men, who killed him, behind the bars.”

Today, Ken’s Grocery remains closed – the only signs of the tragedy were bouquets of flowers placed near the door, and several candles in Gupta’s memory, which have burned down.

In fact, for all the talk about Surrey, the store is literally only metres outside the city Delta, which borders Surrey along 96th up to Scott Road three blocks to the east. Crossing over into the neighbouring municipality – as Gupta did to seek help after being shot – staff at nearby convenience stores expressed their shock at Gupta’s death – adding they believed he likely dying tried to defend his friends’ store from the robbers.

“It’s horrible,” said Kal Ram, manager of Fas Gas one block away. “You have to be on alert a lot. You gotta be careful.

“Am I worried? … You always gotta worry – it’s always there – but it’s one of those things. Remember: money is not everything – give the guy what they want. Don’t be a superhero, man. Bullets are tough to dodge these days, and they go right through us.”

Gun violence has been prominent in lower mainland news this year. The recent holiday shootings brought Surrey homicide count up to 32 – only six of this total gang-related, police said. The December 14 killing of Thuy Yen Vu, 38, in Vancouver, and Maple Batalia, 19, on Surrey’s Simon Fraser University (SFU) campus, were both widely reported.

“I can tell you in these recent homicides investigators feel that they do not appear to be gang-related, based on the [intelligence information] of the victims,” Sergeant Jennifer Pound, a spokeswoman for the RCMP Integrated Homicide Investigation Team, told the Vancouver Observer by email. “In the recent four homicides the preliminary evidence suggests that they do not appear to be gang related at this point.

“That’s not to say that the assessment could change depending on where the evidence leads us in the coming days or months.”

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One anti-racist activist agreed with Sahota that “unfair stereotypes” about Surrey contribute to the public and media perception of out-of-control violence in the city.

“In the case of British Columbia, we have a very real problem of racism and inequality,” said Alan Dutton, of the cross-Canada Stop Racism & Hate Collective, who has worked in Surrey. “As a result, crime rates do differ as do incarceration rates.

“It is easy to fall into the stereotype for the mass media because it is a common stereotype based on racialization — the population of Surrey is diverse so naturally, the stereotype goes, there would be more crime, more violence, more discord.

“Of course,” he added, “it is not true that any one ethnic groups or gender is more susceptible to crime than any other. The reason why crime rates differ by ethnicity, nationality and gender is not their cultural makeup, but the opportunities, and lack of opportunities, groups encounter.”

The Vancouver Observer also spoke at length with Dr. Robert Gordon, director of SFU’s criminology department, about the causes of gun violence. Although he cautioned that quite little is known about the recent spate of shootings, Gordon said that several of the killings happened near parties, where the victims and killers possibly knew one another. The reality, he added, is that most killings in the region result from domestic violence and conflicts – and that gun violence is directly and indirectly linked to the illegal drug trade.

“Most murders occur between people who know each other in some way, and are the result of some kind of domestic situation,” he said. “It’s possible that a couple of these shootings in Surrey fall within that category.

“When you look at the basic information related to the shootings, only one (Simpson’s) seems to be related to the illegal drug trade. The one that’s a complete outlier was the guy (Gupta) on Christmas Day minding the store for his friends. I think that was simply a robbery gone wrong. Probably because the guy resisted the robbery. The police advice in such situations when someone puts a gun in your face is to give them the money.”

Gordon emphasized that there is still little information about the killers’ motives in any of the recent cases, most gun violence in the region is connected to illegal drug trafficking through the Lower Mainland’s many U.S. border crossings – and particularly the exchange of widely sought BC Bud marijuana with guns, cocaine and other hard drugs from the south.

“That drug trade is thriving and it’s very profitable,” he said. “Most of the killings we see in metro Vancouver, especially over last few years, have been in the drug trade and disputes among people in it.

“(Demand for drugs) creates a network of trading which extends across the continent. Notwithstanding all the talk about 9/11, it’s still not difficult to make cross-border runs. The industry exists because there is demand for the product, and people are prepared to pay a lot to get access to drugs.”

Guns – predominantly assault rifles, automatic firearms such as uzis, and Glock handguns, Gordon said – are smuggled northward across the border from the U.S., where the few and poorly enforced gun control laws allow the purchase of a wide range of weapons.

“Firearms usually come over in loads,” he said. “Without giving away trade secrets, one way is to enlist frequent border-crossers and have vehicles … and loads susceptible to concealment.

“It relies on the corruption of Canada Border Service agents in particular,” Gordon added, alluding to the arrest of several agents earlier this year on trafficking charges, as well as past arrests of border guards.

But driving the entire illegal drug trade? The very fact that it is illegal, Gordon argues. He joins Mayor Gregor Robertson and four of Vancouver’s former mayors, who called for the legalization of marijuana in November.

The arms used in gun violence are traded north into B.C. because of the illegal drug trade – even functioning as de facto currency. All this, Gordon argued, is spurred by what he called “failed” Canadian drug prohibition policies unduly influenced by the U.S. government – policies which increase the profitability of the trade itself and raise its stakes.

“If it wasn’t profitable it wouldn’t happen,” he said. “The very illegality of it renders it profitable.

“The problem, as Canadians, is that our domestic policy is being dictated to us by our neighbours to the south. The (U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency) … has a vested interest in maintaining the war on drugs started by Nixon and Reagan. They really don’t give a damn – it’s a failure and we all know it’s failure. It’s had a major criminogenic (crime-causing) effect.”

Gordon praised Surrey’s crime reduction strategy because of its emphasis on prevention and tackling the root causes of crime. But the illegality of the drug trade itself creates problems that no city alone can tackle without sweeping drug reforms.

“People get outraged by drugs, but it’s that moral dimension that obscures clear analysis and obscures solutions,” he said. “It becomes politicized, and the minute that happens all is lost.”

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Gordeon also cites the federal government’s new crime law – the Safe Streets and Communities Act – as a misguided attempt to gain votes at the expense of sound policies based on evidence. The Act is in fact an umbrella bill containing many others — some good, come bad, Gordon said — but particularly problematic, he suggested, are measures introducing U.S.-style mandatory minimum sentences for drug possession.

“It’s a foolish way of proceeding because it’s completely opposite in direction to evidence-based research,” he said, adding sarcastically: “But if you’re a careful, considered analyst of the area, you’re obviously an apologist for criminals.”

When VO asked about Surrey’s high gun violence levels compared to the rest of B.C., Gordon pointed to the city’s crime reduction strategy as a success story. Counc. Rasode argued the per capita levels are actually lower than other municipalities in the province.

“Poor old Surrey,” Gordon said, laughing. “Surrey has actually been doing extremely well in terms of its crime rate.

“I’m sure the mayor and police are very upset by what’s happened over last weekend. All of their hard work has been undone this last weekend.”

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