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Disarming Edmonton gangs: Meet the police unit suppressing gang and gun violence – Edmonton

Gang and gun violence is on the rise in Edmonton.

The brazenness and amount of shootings is the worst Edmonton police have ever seen in the city, which is why the Gang Suppression Team (GST) was created. The unit is dedicated to tackling gun and gang violence, while keeping tabs on gangsters to prevent further violence.

Sgt. Ryan Ferry is the sergeant in charge of GST. The team was created in 2019 because there was a need. There’s anywhere from 2,000 to 3,000 people involved in gangs in Edmonton.

“Our gangsters can be anywhere at anytime,” Ferry said. “Our gang-involved subjects need to eat lunch.”

The GST unit started rounds early on the Friday of the long weekend this past June. Their 12-hour shift begins at restaurants, bars and hotels.

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‘The “agent status” program permits police officers to remove anyone who presents a public safety risk at places like bars or restaurants if the business owners agree to take part in the program.

EPS can ban people from venues or arrest them as trespassers if they return — all in an effort to prevent violence.

“It’s a bit of a whack-a-mole game where we have to try and figure out where they’re going to end up,” Ferry said.

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At El Beso bar on Jasper Avenue, Ferry and his crew are welcomed by owner, Percy Wiredu, who chooses to team up with police. Violence is bad for his patrons and for business.

“They have a list of like the who’s who that shouldn’t be in restaurants, in bars, out in public, right? And then for us, like me, we do our best to keep our staff safe but there’s only so much we can do,” Wiredu said.

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“There’s always innocent bystanders that get involved, which isn’t fair. The quicker you can escort someone out of a bar, the less likely they are to commit a crime in the bar.”

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As of October 2023, Edmonton has recorded 33 homicides and 19 of them involved firearms. Shootings are up 47 per cent over last year and 188 have been reported to police.

The use of sophisticated firearms and targeted attacks are on the rise and groups involved in illegal drug activity are also fuelling gang violence.

“When we look at the violence that’s attributed to those guys, we can say that roughly 25 per cent of all of our homicides are confirmed to have been gang involved,” Ferry said.

Even just driving up along Calgary Trail, the GST team has come across some well-known subjects meeting in parking lots.

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“This (group) just so happens to be one of the guys that’s associated to the ongoing criminal investigation that we did for drug trafficking for the other investigative team,” Ferry said.

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Despite the criminal history, there’s a relationship building. The interactions are friendly, police simply making their presence known.

“Sometimes it will be enough to just cruise past and look at the patio. Sometimes I’ll find vehicles that I recognize out on the lot,” Ferry said.

Ferry will run licence plates, looking for vehicle owners they know.

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The team is also trained to recognize faces. Officers browse the ID scanners at bars. On this particular night at a strip club, they spotted a person tied to a major drug trafficking network between Edmonton and Grande Prairie.

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“He may be unassuming but if he’s a viable target for this vendetta and revenge, they’ll take him and so he’s got to go,” Ferry said.

At another downtown bar known for being a hub where gang members frequent, the unit did its usual check-in with a bouncer to find out how the night was going.

GST builds relationships with everyone they encounter: the owners, security, even the regulars, with the hope of helping one another.

“They’re (bar staff) really on the front lines trying their best to keep people safe but they’re not equipped to deal with severe firearms violence either,” Ferry said.

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People working in entertainment venues have witnessed the increase in violence. One man, who cannot be identified, told Global News he had a gun pulled on him because he wouldn’t play a song request.

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“They actually had the gun on my back saying, ‘If you don’t play the song, I will shoot you,’” the DJ said. “Particularly the afterhours (bars), there can be a lot of violence going on there.”

GST also does rounds along Whyte Avenue. Their walkthrough lead to an arrest at one busy bar that was packed on a Friday night.

“He’s (man arrested) got some criminal stuff that we’ve got to make sure he’s compliant with but otherwise, he’s intoxicated, belligerent and he just picked a fight inside. That’s sometimes what we end up having to deal with.”

EPS Staff Sgt. Eric Stewart said he knows the walkthroughs and arrests can look random to others on the street or in the bar and could give people a negative impression about why police are targeting certain people. But the GST unit is always acting on intelligence, according to Stewart. They’re simply removing the threat of violence from public settings.

“We’re tired of it, we want to make sure to let everybody know that’s going to be involved in that type of behaviour, it’s not going to be tolerated,” Stewart said.

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On the night of this ride-along, the GST team made arrests and kicked a few people out of bars but it’s hard to say how big of a difference they’re making because it’s impossible to know what might have happened. But Stewart is confident the team is stopping violence.

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“Preventive work is what it is… I know they’re doing a good job,” Stewart said.

Ferry has a slightly different gauge of success: when sometimes, the nights aren’t that busy.

“That’s actually a win for us. Nobody getting hurt. Nobody getting shot. No gang members found out and about,” Ferry said.

It’s just lately in Edmonton, those nights seem few and far between.

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