‘Less talk, more action on gangs’

An activist delivered a stark message to police on how to beat gang crime yesterday.

Gina Spence, the founder of community arts organisation Gina Spence Productions, said hand-wringing had to be replaced with action.

She added: “I have been around for the last 20 years.

“I try to be optimistic about community meetings, strategies — we’ve probably done it all.”

However, Ms Spence said: “Meetings are only fruitful if we have a real, tangible plan. I have yet to see either of our governments come in and do something drastically different.

“You also need bold leadership. You need a voice and a leader who is unapologetic.

“I find that we tiptoe … at the end of the day, I look at a place like 42nd Street in New York, which was notorious. That’s the street that had prostitution and drugs.

“A bold leader stepped in and said ‘you know what? We’re going to bring change to this community’.”

Ms Spence was speaking as she met Commissioner of Police Stephen Corbishley to discuss the island’s epidemic of gang-related violence only days after Ronniko Burchall, 30, died when he was shot outside a sports club in St David’s.

Mr Corbishley said he remained optimistic that a reduction in firearms on the street, such as last month’s seizure of three guns with a stockpile of drugs, delivered “massive benefits”.

However, he admitted: “The problem with gangs is it’s all about territory and turf. We know there’s tension and we start getting intelligence around the threat between one gang and another.”

Mr Corbishley asked Ms Spence’s advice on how to break down the “wall of silence that often exists in communities”.

He said that police continued to look for a man linked to Mr Burchall’s shooting outside St David’s County Cricket Club.

Mr Corbishley added: “He knows who he is. His family knows. A lot of people know he is being sought.

“I have a duty of care to him, in regards to protecting him.”

He also asked how the police could win the co-operation of embattled communities and reduce tension between gangs.

Ms Spence said: “It’s all about trust. “It’s very difficult to go in, even with good intentions, and try to give support. There’s definitely a line drawn between police and persons involved in the selling of drugs.”

She added that Gina Spence Productions had “the trust and the street credit”.

Ms Spence said: “The police have come a long way. I remember when there was unimaginable tension. People wanted answers; they wanted police to fix it now. Bermuda didn’t know what to do with homicide.”

She told Mr Corbishley: “I’m not going to lie. When people go into protection mode, they don’t see you as the person that they want to share that truth with.”

Mr Corbishley, who promised to work at grassroots level with communities when he took over as Commissioner last June, said he had often been told of zero tolerance crackdowns such as Operation Cleansweep, the anti-street drug dealer drive in 1997 that brought scores of arrests island wide.

He told Ms Spence: “That’s a top-down approach. As soon as I turn that off, it all comes back. What you’re describing is that you grow it from the community upwards.”

Ms Spence added: “We see them as gang members and groups — if you ask them, they say ‘that’s my family’.”

She added that police faced an uphill struggle in communities after a killing, but that gang-related drug dealers had ways to win support in neighbourhoods.

Ms Spence said: “There are certain individuals who carry a huge amount of support and respect in their communities as a person that is involved in drugs.

“They underwrite costs for football games, they give back to communities. We may look at it and say that’s crazy, but they do.

“They see that person as a person that helps in spite of the lifestyle they live, so it’s a very fine line between what we know is the law and what is the reality in a community.”

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