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DeSilva: remain vigilant on gangs

Michael DeSilva, former Commissioner of Police (Photograph by Akil Simmons)

Bermuda should not get complacent over a lull in gang violence, the outgoing police commissioner has warned.

Michael DeSilva said it is “not a time to be lulled into a false sense of security” and said the social problems at the root of gangs needed to be confronted.

Mr DeSilva added: “Gangs have not been eradicated — they are still active, and we have to anticipate the huge potential that there will be tensions that reverse the trend.”

He said: “The reality is that we have not had any significant gang violence this year.

“Part of that can be attributed to strong law enforcement and to strong government support as well as individual people taking responsibility. But a lot of it has to do with the absence of tension.”

Mr DeSilva was speaking as he stood down on Friday after nine years in charge of Bermuda’s “thin blue line”.

He took charge of the police service in 2009, just before a significant spike in gun crime and other gang-related violence. Bermuda has recorded 35 gun murders since then.

Mr DeSilva said: “Where there are fights brewing, we are counting the days before a shooting.

“When there are tussles, confrontations, chains being snatched and instances of disrespect, and when you have that cycle repeating itself, it causes a chain reaction of attacks and counter-attacks. As a community, we have to be careful when things are quiet — that’s the time to work harder to fix the social problems that create an environment where gangs flourish.

“There’s no better time to do that than when things are not heating up.”

Mr DeSilva said: “We have to be prepared that if things do heat up and people resort to violence that we continue to work across the community spectrum, to keep holding people to account while rehabilitating those involved and stopping young people from getting involved at all.”

He added the “telltale signs” of a build-up of tension coincided with the start of Mr DeSilva’s tenure.

Mr DeSilva said: “We had four murders in 2009. That having been said, we had deployed armed officers to Cup Match in 2004 for the first time.

“We had already had obvious signs of tensions rising, and activity rising.”

The ex-commissioner added there had been “a slow burn into this — but we never would have been able to contemplate what would happen in 2010”.

He said: “Someone got shot every ten days. Seven tragically resulted in loss of life.

“What that did for our organisation was give it a singular focus. There was nothing else of equal importance — there was no second place and we could not have afforded to get that wrong.”

Mr DeSilva said there had been early recognition that “we can’t arrest or legislate our way out of the problem — we have to build our way out”.

He added: “Although we’re dealing with criminal behaviour, it comes from a place of social dysfunction.

“If we don’t fix the things that drive people to violence, there will be more behind them.”

Significant arrests and court cases resulted in long jail sentences for people convicted of gang violence.

But Mr DeSilva said the service by 2014 found itself confronting “younger people we had never seen before whose first offence was with a firearm”.

He added: “We called them the version 2.0. Exactly what was predicted was what happened. You take out the main players, but because the environment remains the same, more people are coming along resorting to violence.

“For the last few years, our focus has also included community involvement and government agencies, and putting energy and effort into solving the underlying social issues.”

Mr DeSilva said: “Without a doubt, Bermuda has had a success story. We have seen collaboration and co-operation and entities working together that previously didn’t have relationships.”

Mr DeSilva added “the famous adage that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” had proved to be true.

He said: “There is clear evidence that the plan has a strong chance of being hugely successful.”

Mr DeSilva added he was “proud of us as a service”.

He said: “The way we have sustained almost a decade of dealing with incredibly violent crime against a backdrop of shrinking resources and actually making a significant difference and winning support from the public has been exemplary.

“From the command team right down to the officers walking the beat, they have done an exemplary job.”