The arrest of a 16-year-old with ties to a Manitoba gang offered a look into a world where at-risk youth, police and Victoria’s downtown drug trade collide.
“When these type of guys get into town, teens get drawn to them because there’s that allure of excitement,” said Sgt. Barrie Cockle, who heads a team of beat and bike officers who focus on downtown issues.
The youth was arrested Wednesday after a two-week investigation, sparked when officers with the Focused Enforcement Team noticed the teen was hanging around Douglas Street between View and Johnson streets, a problem area for at-risk youth.
Police believe the youth was dealing drugs and trying to recruit other teens into the drug trade.
Const. Sean Hand and Sgt. Dale Sleightholme, members of that police team, walked part of their downtown beat Friday afternoon with the Times Colonist, talking to youth whom, for the most part, they know by name.
Both officers say it’s important to build a relationship with street-entrenched youth, pointing them to the social services available and even driving them home when they are reported missing.
Beat officers know most of the youth who hang out on the stretch of Douglas Street near McDonald’s and the Bay Centre, Cockle said.
“Members of the Focused Enforcement Team started seeing him down there and identifying him,” he said of the Manitoba teen.
“He stuck out like a sore thumb, just because we know everyone down there.”
It wasn’t long before members saw evidence of drug dealing and others being lured in.
As Hand and Sleightholme walk their beat, they stop at the corner of Douglas and View streets. Hand talks to about half a dozen teens, including one male, wearing a red hoodie, whom the officer dealt with about a year ago as part of a missing persons file.
“We just ask them, ‘Why are you out here? … Why hang out with [drug] dealers?’ ” Hand said.
Sleightholme said he’ll often take a joking and casual tone with the kids to create a rapport and a level of trust. When he sees a new face, a younger teen starting to hang out on the street, he tries to warn them of the dangers — addiction, violence and the beginning of a crime cycle that’s hard to break.
“Most of the time they have no idea what they’re getting into,” Sleightholme said.
One 16-year-old girl who spoke to the Times Colonist while hanging out in the downtown area said police need to focus more on hardcore drug dealers and addicts in the 900 block of Pandora Avenue rather than picking on youth for smoking weed or buying cigarettes illegally.
But she’s not sympathetic toward teens trying to sell other teens hard drugs.
“Because the drug culture downtown is really strong and people are really territorial about their drugs, so it’s kind of safer for that [Manitoba teen], I guess, to get arrested and taken away than to get killed on the streets.”
Cockle said once teens are skipping school and disconnected from their families, it’s easy for them to fall into illegal activity.
“It doesn’t take long before someone who’s not good for these vulnerable youth, to start taking them under their wing. And the next thing you know, they’re into activities that are not good for them,” Cockle said.
The Youth Empowerment Society has a drop-in centre that’s open from 3 to 9:30 p.m. where youth can have a meal, shower, play pool or use computers. They can also talk to counsellors who might be able to set them up with more specialized services such as help getting a job or enrolling in a detox program, said executive director Pat Griffin.
The 16-year-old Manitoba youth has appeared in court, charged with drug trafficking and possession for the purpose of trafficking. He was on court-ordered conditions relating to two previous drug-trafficking convictions in Manitoba at the time of his arrest.
He will be held in custody at Victoria’s Youth Detention Centre until his next court appearance April 4.