As Vancouver copes with death of teen bystander, reality of gang violence reaches public eye

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As Vancouver copes with death of teen bystander, reality of gang violence reaches public eye

On a clear Saturday night in Vancouver last week, 15-year-old Alfred Wong was on his way to dinner with his parents when he was shot and killed.

Two Vancouver men were also hit, including the man police believe was the intended victim, 23-year-old Kevin Whiteside, who later died.

"What a tragic, terrible event this is. We can't recall something like this happening in our city in a very long time," Vancouver Police Chief Adam Palmer said at a press conference on Monday. 

"It's heartbreaking."

Deadly toll

Within the week that followed, there were nearly half a dozen shootings in the Lower Mainland, culminating in a targeted shooting on Friday night that claimed the life of 24-year-old Lovepreet Singh Dhaliwal of Abbotsford, B.C.

Targeted shootings rarely elicit much, or any, response from the public.

But when they affect an innocent bystander, they lead to an outpouring of grief, and a realization that it could have been anyone who found themselves on that Vancouver street corner.

Law enforcement officers and academics studying organized crime say many people in the Lower Mainland are desensitized to gang related violence that operates in relative obscurity. But when that violence is pushed into the public eye, residents are reminded of the deadly toll it can have.

City 'temporarily on edge'

Simon Fraser University criminologist Rob Gordon said when shootings are declared to be targeted, they often don't register with many members of the public.

"People say 'Oh it's just a bunch of gangsters shooting at each other, who cares if they kill each other?' — I've heard that many times. But it is when an innocent person is caught in the crossfire, then we've let that innocent person down," he said.

"It puts everybody temporarily on edge, but we've grown used to this kind of drug-related violence."

Much of the shock around the Vancouver shooting also centred around the location at Ontario and East Broadway, a busy intersection surrounded by apartments and businesses.

Gordon said that by committing the crime in a such a high-traffic area, the gang members may also have broken an unwritten "criminal code of conduct." 

"The goal is usually to minimize collateral damage, because they know this leads to public outrage, and public outcry then puts pressure to bear on politicians and the police, and just generally ramps up the whole inquiry," he said.

Vancouver police have dedicated 50 investigators to the case, and renewed an urgent call for witnesses to come forward.

Last night, a police command post was set up at the intersection in the hopes that witnesses will come forward.

'Brazen' attack

"This is bad and we are concerned about how brazen this was," Vancouver Police spokesperson Sgt. Jason Robillard said in a news conference.

"This is rare that these things happen...and we are going to work as hard as we have to to solve this."

Gordon emphasized that despite the shocking nature of what happened, residents should not be overly concerned about the risk to their own personal safety.

"These remain rare events. That doesn't diminish the tragedy of any one event. But by and large, this is a safe place to be," he said.

Corp. Scotty Schumann works for Surrey RCMP, a city so commonly associated with gun violence it was picked as the location of a major federal announcement on funding to fight gang violence across Canada.

"I would say you're much more likely to be injured or killed in a car accident than hit by a bullet intended for another target," Shumann said.