It was a warm June afternoon in 2018 when a barrage of bullets flew through a busy playground in Scarborough’s Alton Towers Circle, striking two sisters. Aged 5 and 9, the girls were rushed to hospital and survived — but are deeply impacted.
“You know what she said to me that day?” Stacey King, the girls’ mother, told the public health board in a passionate deputation last July. Her 5-year-old, shot in the abdomen, had asked: “Mommy, am I going to die?”
The girls have since recovered, but they “still have nightmares, and they’ll never forget what happened,” King said this week.
The after-school playground shooting was only the first brazen gunfire unleashed in a public space that prompted citywide safety concerns last summer. Over the Canada Day long weekend, three people were shot dead, two of the victims killed in a daylight eruption of gunfire on a busy stretch of Queen St.
Facing mounting public pressure to control the rash of gunfire, Toronto police Chief Mark Saunders and Mayor John Tory announced their “gun violence strategic plan,” which included $3 million to send 200 additional officers throughout the city at times when shootings are most likely to occur.
Ahead of the Victoria Day weekend, with summer fast approaching — a season when gun violence trends upwards — the Star sat down with Saunders to discuss plans to reduce gun violence across the city, and spoke with experts and advocates about what’s needed for the longer term.
How violent has 2019 been so far?
As of May 13, the most recent available numbers, there have been 129 shootings in the city this year, according to publicly available Toronto police data. That’s slightly less than the year-to-date shootings in the last three years: 2018 (136), 2017 (133) and 2016 (134). But it’s well above 2015’s year-to-date statistic, when just 88 shootings occurred in the city.
Shooting homicides are slightly up — there have been 14 gun-related deaths this year. That’s two more than this time last year, and on par with the year-to-date gun deaths in 2017.
By the end of 2018, there were 51 fatal shootings, contributing to the city’s record homicide count of 96 killings. The worst year for shooting deaths in Toronto is still 2005 — the so-called Year of the Gun — when 53 people were killed by gunfire.
Did 200 officers last year make a difference?
Between July 20 and Sept. 9, the equivalent of 200 Toronto police officers were deployed throughout the city between 7 p.m. and 3 a.m., when shootings are most likely to occur. At the time, Saunders stressed the initiative would be “intelligence-led,” meaning they would go where they were needed and not simply flood neighbourhoods.
The initiative — enabled through officer overtime, and criticized by the Toronto Police Association — did lead to an overall reduction in the number of shootings last year. There were 428 shooting occurrences in 2018, the highest number in the five previous years.
During the period when the additional officers were deployed, the number of shootings did decrease from past years. Throughout the eight-week period there were 63 shootings — a 13 per cent reduction over the same eight-week period in 2017 (when there were 73 shootings) and a 25 per cent reduction during the same weeks in 2016 (84 shootings).
According to a Toronto police analysis of weekend shootings, the 2018 initiative reduced the number by 33 per cent over 2017 and by 37 per cent over 2016.
But there was more deadly gunfire in 2018, with 11 people fatally shot during that eight-week period, which had just begun when gunman Faisal Hussain opened fired on the Danforth, killing two people and injuring 13. During the same period in 2017, nine people were fatally shot, and three were killed over the same eight weeks in 2016.
The move to send more officers into neighbourhoods was criticized by community advocates, who worried about police targeting specific communities. In an interview with the Star this week, Louis March, founder of Toronto’s Zero Gun Violence Movement, said it was a “good public relations gimmick” that failed to produce results. The initiative only made it “seem as though they were taking it seriously,” March said.
Saunders said there was “strong positive benefit — even if we helped one person from being shot or being murdered.” Asked if police will replicate the program this summer, Saunders said he won’t discuss specifics about the police “playbook.”
“The best measure and the best approach is to stay intelligence-led,” Saunders said, “and leave it at that.”
How are police working to decrease gun violence?
Saunders stressed that the proliferation of shootings in the city should be defined as street gang violence, not the anonymous “gun violence.” The vast majority of shootings are associated with the roughly 725 known gang members and affiliates in the city, he said.
Police focus has been on building relationships at a community level, through the ongoing Neighbourhood Officer Program — which sees cops assigned to certain areas to get to know its needs and residents — and each division’s front-line officers, known as the primary response unit. According to Saunders, that work is “gleaning tremendous local level intelligence, which is creating fantastic assistance.
“When we tap into them, we’re finding that people are helping, people are co-operating,” Saunders said. “It doesn’t necessarily get us to the threshold of apprehension, but it does provide us intelligence and when you hear the same story from 18 different people it does focus us on where we put our resources, how we go about applying it.”
Saunders said that helps police be preventative, by increasing officer presence, or it can aid in investigations after a shooting.
Each police division across Toronto has its own localized knowledge of what’s causing gun violence — be it a dispute over territory, drug transactions, rivalries, or because someone dissed someone on YouTube, Saunders said. “And then, we make our approach as an organization based on what we see and what we’re hearing and then we try to figure out what resources are necessary.”
How does the gun buyback program fit into this?
Late last month, in response to last year’s surge in gun violence, Toronto police launched a three-week gun buyback program. Members of the public were invited to hand over registered or unregistered guns in their possession in exchange for $200 for a long gun or $350 for a handgun. None of the owners would face a charge for possessing or unsafely storing a firearm.
Police said Friday, the final day of the initiative, that they had obtained 1,631 long guns and 707 handguns, which will be destroyed.
There is limited research on the efficacy of gun buyback or amnesty programs, and critics have said these initiatives do not attract the kinds of guns used in crimes — they are more typically old, unwanted guns that law-abiding people inherited somehow.
Police say it’s still helpful to destroy guns that could — through a break-in, for example — get into the hands of criminals who may use the gun. Getting upwards of 2,000 guns off the street is “ a good day for the city,” Saunders said. “The numbers speak for themselves.”
But March said the city is “tired of these publicity gimmicks.”
“The people on the street are saying, I’m not turning my gun in for that. This is people finding guns in their basement and these are people who have nothing to fear,” he said.
How are Toronto police spending money from the province?
Proclaiming he was “from the old school — I love boots on the ground,” Premier Doug Ford announced last August that he was giving Toronto police $18-million over four years to put toward combating gun violence.
Police could use the money however they saw fit, Ford said. Saunders told the Star that money has gone to the force’s guns and gangs task force.
Ford’s government has since announced a further $16.4 million in funding over two years to fight guns and gangs, including improved training for corrections officers to gather intelligence on gangs operating in jails.
Meanwhile, critics have railed against provincial cuts to programming aimed at the root causes of crime. Last summer, King — the mother of the girls shot in the playground — pointed out the Ford government’s cuts to a youth music program. This kind of after-school program “keeps kids off the street and out of trouble,” she said.
Experts on crime reduction stress that giving money directly to police is short-sighted, and has not been proven to increase public safety.
“Most governments pay more and more for standard police, courts and corrections despite evidence that the increases to expenditures do not usually stop violence,” writes Irvin Waller, a professor emeritus in criminology at the University of Ottawa, in Science and Secrets of Ending Violent Crime.
In the new book, Waller writes that costs of policing in Canada grew from $6 billion in 2000 to $14.7 billion in 2017, a rise mostly attributable to increasing salaries. Two-thirds of policing costs fall to municipalities, which in turn means cities have to cut other services aimed at prevention to cover ballooning police budgets, Waller writes.
Funding for programs addressing the roots of youth violence was at issue in the most recent Toronto budget, passed March 7. Council approved a more than $50-million anti-gun violence plan in July, which relied entirely on funding from other levels of government.
But city staff informed council earlier this year that the plan was left largely unfunded. Of $32.65 million requested by the city for community initiatives, only $6.8 million was funded by the federal government, leaving more than $26 million unfunded.
During this year’s budget process, council approved an additional $2.5 million to expand community programs under its youth equity strategy, which range from focusing on trauma resulting from gun violence to helping young people reintegrate into their communities after spending time in prison.
In March, Mayor John Tory said talks with the federal government about funding for anti-violence initiatives were “ongoing” and that they remained “positive and constructive.” Still, no additional funds have been forthcoming.
Waller recommends something he called “tithing” — putting 10 per cent of the police budget toward prevention initiatives aimed at the root causes of crime: issues including poverty, mental illness, homelessness and substance abuse. Preventative programming can be relatively inexpensive, Waller writes, and the 10 per cent could eventually provide as much as a 50 per cent reduction in crime.
What are the longer-term alternatives?
When it comes to reducing crime, police “play an important role but they’re not the only player,” says Felix Munger, who manages the Canadian Municipal Network on Crime Prevention, an association of cities aiming to cut crime. The concept of “boots on the ground” is not a recipe for long-term success, he said.
Instead, he advocates for a public health approach, which would create partnerships with social services and health practitioners, and aim to intervene before crimes take place. He points to Glasgow, Scotland, where a task force brought down the homicide rate by 50 per cent using what Waller called a combination of “smart law enforcement” and programs targeted to youth, family and health.
“The evidence shows that that works,” Munger said.
In Minneapolis, the city council declared youth violence a public health issue and developed a plan that involved mentoring at-risk youth, intervening at the first signs of risk, and working to changing the culture of violence, according to Waller. Between 2007 and 2015, the city saw a 62 per cent reduction in youth gunshot victims and 76 per cent reduction of youth arrests with a gun, Waller wrote.
Asked in an interview what he would do to reduce gun violence in Toronto, Waller stressed the importance of a dedicated unit, reporting directly to city council, that would diagnose the reasons for gun violence, examine what services are missing, and propose what actions need to be taken. The unit would also mobilize other agencies not under the control of the city, such as school boards.
“I would be setting a target of two to three years for when they start doing these things, and I would be ramping up the money for smart investments and proven solutions,” he said.
In 2017, Toronto police launched their transformational task force, which aims to reduce costs and improve public trust in the service. As part of that, Toronto police acknowledged the need to partner with communities and other services to address the root causes of crime and allow for early intervention.
Asked how that process is going, Saunders said it is “moving in right direction,” though “not at the pace that everybody would want it to be.”
Saunders said what is shifting is that “for the first time in a long time,” there is more acknowledgement that crime-solving is about looking at root causes.
“It was a conversation that was not had years ago. It was always, ‘There’s a gun problem. Police, here … go deal with it,’” Saunders said. “And the remedy was throwing more uniforms in neighbourhoods and turning things upside down. So the intentions were right, but the problem was, it’s not just a police problem.”
With files from Jennifer Pagliaro
Wendy Gillis is a Toronto-based reporter covering crime and policing. Reach her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter: @wendygillis
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