Toronto Mayor John Tory talked tough on Monday when he addressed the city’s alarming spike in gun violence this summer. “I have made it clear that I expect police will do everything possible to root out the thugs responsible for this violence,” he said.
He reaffirmed his commitment to “putting these gangsters in jail” and promised that “the answers are easy if we work together to deploy more police and support the police to actually get these thugs behind bars and keep them there.”
Mr. Tory is angry, as are many in Toronto. The recent shootings, some of which have taken place in crowded public areas and killed and wounded innocent bystanders – including two young sisters in a playground who survived their injuries – are craven and unsettling acts. Those responsible deserve a long time behind bars.
But the mayor’s belief that “answers are easy” if the city just throws enough police at the problem is indicative of a failed mindset that has prevailed in Toronto for too long.
In 2012, former mayor Rob Ford similarly vowed to wage a “war on thugs” in the wake of gang-related shootings at the Eaton Centre and at a street party in Scarborough, events that together killed four people and injured 28 more.
Mr. Ford, like Mr. Tory this week, called for tougher sentences for gun crimes and more funding from Ottawa and Queen’s Park for policing and anti-gang programs.
It was the same response in 2005, Toronto’s original “Summer of the Gun.” That year saw a dramatic spike in gang-related shootings, one that was capped by the death of Jane Creba, a 15-year-old girl killed by crossfire on Yonge Street while shopping with her family on Boxing Day.
That tragedy led directly to the creation of the Toronto Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy (TAVIS) in January of 2006. Meant to be a short-term response to the surge in gun violence, its provincial funding was made permanent in 2012, after the Scarborough street-party shooting.
And yet, in spite of all the additional millions for policing, here we are again in the middle of another summer of deadly gunplay on Toronto streets.
It is at this point very difficult to believe Mr. Tory’s claim that “the answers are easy if we work together to deploy more police.” In fact, there is evidence that doing so can be counterproductive.
Take TAVIS, for instance. Its most lasting impact was the sweeping expansion of “carding,” a policing practice in which officers stop people not suspected of having committed a crime and ask them for identification and other personal information. The information is then stored in a database and used in future investigations.
In the wake of the creation of TAVIS, police disproportionately targeted young black men minding their own business in neighbourhoods identified as high-risk for gang violence. The cardings sometimes resulted in violent confrontations instigated by police when those who were stopped insisted on their constitutional right not to respond.
If anything, TAVIS helped produce a generation of Torontonians who do not trust the police and are unlikely to work with them to help solve crimes. It also failed to prevent this summer’s violence.
But then, no amount of special police task forces will ever put an end to gang violence in Toronto, because the problem is far more complex than the number of officers on the street, the number of raids and arrests that are carried out, and the number of people who are carded.
What is needed, what has always been needed, is for the city to address the abundant and self-evident social issues that lead young people to participate in gangs.
Believe us when we tell you that those issues have been identified repeatedly in various and expensive reports since that first Summer of the Gun. They include racism, poverty, lack of adequate housing, under-serviced neighbourhoods and poor community policing.
There is no question that law and order are key to dealing with what is, after all, criminal activity. Mr. Tory is not wrong about that.
But responding with an angry determination to bring thugs to justice, while once again failing to address in a meaningful way the inequities that contribute to gang violence, will only kick this problem down the road to another Toronto mayor, in another Toronto summer.
We’ll look at those issues in greater depth tomorrow.