Reducing Toronto’s escalating gun violence, which has claimed 22 lives so far this year, will require social change and not a police crackdown, politicians and crime researchers say.
Ramping up the number of officers in at-risk neighbourhoods or reinstating controversial police practices like carding will only push crime to new areas and alienate members of the public, University of Toronto sociology professor Jooyoung Lee said.
“The long-term approach is really to address conditions like intergenerational urban poverty and racial discrimination in the labour market, and helping youth of colour — who are particularly disadvantaged in cities like Toronto — to get a leg up,” said Lee, whose research centres on gun violence and gangs.
Young men are most likely to join gangs between the ages of 14 and 18, as they try to figure out who they are going to be as adults, Lee said.
“They may live in a context where they feel insecure about their safety, whether at the hands of other youth, or at the hands of police officers who they are skeptical of for a variety of reasons.”
Eleven people have been shot in Toronto since Friday. Two people from the city’s rap scene were killed in a daylight shooting on Queen Street on Saturday — Jahvante Smart, 21, also known as Smoke Dawg, and Ernest Modekwe, 28, both of Toronto. A woman who was shot in the same incident is expected to recover, police said.
Another four people were injured by gunshots late Sunday in the city’s Kensington Market area, and a man was injured Tuesday morning in an apparent drive-by shooting near the downtown core.
Overall, 22 people have been killed by guns in Toronto so far this year. The total number of homicides in the city has been 51 — a figure inflated by the deadly van attack that killed 10 people in April. By contrast, there were 27 homicides at this point last year, including 16 fatal shootings by the end of June 2017.
Mayor John Tory and police Chief Mark Saunders have both said the vast majority of shootings this year have been gang-related.
“Being surgical, being strategic and being focused with that gang subculture is a huge concern of mine,” Saunders told local TV station CP24. “We’ve got a plan in play to look after it over the course of the summer.”
That plan involves “knowing who the players are” rather than saturating neighbourhoods with a police presence, he said.
Toronto is still one of North America’s safest cities but there are “grave concerns” about the rash of gun violence this year and no easy solutions, Tory told reporters Tuesday.
“Anyone who suggests … they have the entire answer in one little slogan or one little policy proposal is misleading the people of Toronto and giving them false hopes,” Tory said. “It is a very complicated issue.”
Toronto will have hired 200 new police officers by the end of the year, and city staff are looking at restoring programs it has run in the past that gave young people “a more positive alternative than gang activity,” Tory added. The city will also apply to access federal government funding for crime prevention, he said.
Tory called for “tougher, stricter” guidelines for Ontario’s bail system.
“Those who are on bail already and are found in possession of a handgun or committing a crime with a handgun (and) those who have been convicted previously of a handgun offence who are found in possession of a handgun should not be given bail,” Tory said. “Those are obviously decisions made by judges, but to me to issue those kinds of much tougher, stricter guidelines to Crown attorneys is a fairly straightforward matter.”
written with files from Nicole Thompson