Handgun bans. Anti-gang crackdowns. Easy bail. In Toronto, as the number of people killed or injured in shootings continues to surge, such terms are often used by municipal leaders, politicians, police. But what do we really know about guns, gangs, and possible solutions to a growing violence problem? In an ongoing series, the Star is aiming to find answers … and to find out when we don’t know the answers … to some life-and-death questions.
Breaking the early dawn calm on a June day last year, a team of 800 police officers spread out across the Greater Toronto Area like tentacles. They charged into homes, arrest warrants in hand, as part of a full-throttle crackdown on a highly co-ordinated criminal organization.
Officers, some heavily armed, arrested more than six dozen people. Among them, police said, were some of the highest-ranking members of the street gang Five Point Generalz.
Rooted in the Weston Road and Lawrence Avenue West area, police alleged the gang’s criminal activities had a vast reach throughout the GTA and Canada, the United States and into the Caribbean. Investigators believe the gang was active in drug sales and distribution and linked to multiple shootings.
“Our investigators are confident that Project Patton has effectively disrupted and dealt a significant blow to the hierarchy and operations of the Five Point Generalz,” Toronto police Chief Mark Saunders told a news conference after the June 21, 2018 raid.
Police later laid out the spoils. On tables in the Toronto police media gallery were cash, drugs and dozens of guns, some of them brightly coloured and resembling water pistols or toy weapons.
“Project Patton,” as it was dubbed, was the type of major guns and gangs bust that happens about once a year, part of the police attempt to tackle violent crime. But while the traditional show-and-tell that follows appears to indicate major progress, do such initiatives work? Are there other methods that are effective?
As part of the Star’s ongoing series examining gun violence, here is a look at policing efforts to stop it.
What are police saying about the current level of violence?
This past summer, Chief Saunders spoke about the source of recent violence, saying a majority of shootings have been street gang-related.
In past years, police have said it’s necessary to respond with “intelligence-led” policing and that such initiatives, often expensive, are beneficial even if one life can be saved. That style of policing involves using data and intelligence to proactively reduce and prevent crime, rather than focusing primarily on reacting to crime.
After a spate of shootings this summer, Saunders also said that intelligence-led or any other type of policing is not a sole solution to a pervasive problem.
“We are not going to arrest our way out of this,” he told reporters in August, pointing to a number of systemic and societal issues underlying the violence that police are not in a position to address.
“We need to make sure that we have mechanisms in place for these young men to not want to take up arms as a means of moving on to the next day,” he said, pointing to a U-shaped area of the city where there has historically been priority areas at-risk of violence identified by police, city officials and researchers.
Saunders has joined politicians in calling for stricter bail conditions, citing incomplete and sometimes isolated statistics of the number of reoffenders out on firearms charges.
More broadly, police leaders have made comments that support investment in policing and tackling guns and gangs as well as legislative changes.
In a statement posted to their website in September, the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police said they supported a ban on assault rifles and that the flow of handguns across the border was an issue that required policy considerations, including a possible ban.
Responding to funding to fight guns and gangs earlier that month, the police chiefs association welcomed the investment, calling for more funds for communities outside the GTA and Ottawa.
The association representing Toronto police officers has frequently called for the hiring of more officers in response to the news of violence, with president Mike McCormack telling CTV News in August that there is a “lack of commitment in policing” that is frustrating officers.
In that interview, McCormack claimed the recent violence was not a “blip” or a “spike” but a “new normal” for Toronto.
Saunders has highlighted that the police are in the process of hiring more than 300 officers as budgeted for in 2019.
What has been the police response to guns and gang violence?
Busts such as Project Patton are a common tool, the efforts sometimes multi-jurisdictional and always accompanied by news conferences, at which seized guns, ammunition and drugs are shown off.
The groups targeted in major guns and gang busts tend to be organized. Some names come up over and over again.
Some police leaders would likely bristle at the suggestion that this feels like the carnival game whack-a-mole, with tragic consequences, but Toronto’s gang problem has not abated. And many caught up in gun violence are not in gangs, but living in neighbourhoods with them. The nature of the gangs has also changed over time, with fewer rules, social media taunts, more ammunition at hand and a willingness to settle beefs on the spot.
Police and cities have used gun buybacks and amnesties to get unwanted legal guns and illegal guns out of the mix. The latest in Toronto was last spring, and offered $350 per handgun and $200 per long gun, and required those turning in the firearms to identify themselves.
While these efforts do bring in unwanted firearms — a buyback in 2013 in Toronto netted 500, and another in 2008 around 2,000 — experts say the programs and amnesties do not pull in the kinds of guns used in crimes.
But they do reduce the risk of guns being lost or stolen and landing in the hands of criminals.
In response to Toronto’s most recent spate of shootings, Toronto police deployed officers to work with the service’s guns and gangs unit in areas prone to gun violence, in what Saunders described as an intelligence-led initiative that involves bail compliance checks and just being visible.
The program, dubbed Project Community Space, began in August and ends Oct. 31, at a cost of $4.5 million — funded by all levels of government.
Saunders told reporters Tuesday that while Project Community Space is seeing some “positive results,” it won’t be enough.
“When we speak about all of the aspects of why people are shooting other people it’s not ‘arrest our way through it’,” he said of the strategies that will work. “We can’t just deal with the enforcement piece … We’re not going to move the agenda any further than where we are right now.”
How has Toronto’s anti-gang approach fared?
What does taking a gang out in one swoop do? It may bring relief to a neighbourhood but it can create a void, and rival or younger groups rush in to take over turf in an area that is socially under-serviced and has fewer opportunities for young people, say criminologists.
“The same conditions remain and percolate for a little while,” says Scot Wortley, an associate professor in the University of Toronto’s centre for criminology and sociolegal studies, “and sometimes the violence gets worse, I’ve been observing, after these successful dismantling of known crews. The young guns come in and fight over the abandoned territory.”
Missing in the equation, or disproportionately underfunded compared to policing, is investment in the affected communities.
“In the past what we’ve often had are attempts, to use a euphemism, to weed the community of all bad guys, but provide very little in terms of fertilization and seeding of those communities so they can escape that problem,” says Wortley.
It also depends what is meant by success.
In the short-term, academics say increased, targeted policing efforts can make a difference in temporarily decreasing incidents of violence, especially retaliatory violence.
The recent Project Community Space netted 525 criminal charges in 240 arrests in the first six weeks, a third of them firearms related — which police hailed as “extremely effective.”
Police also reported that at the midpoint in the project, there was a 30 per cent decrease in shooting occurrences compared to the six weeks prior.
Asked whether that was higher than what would normally be expected without the initiative in place, police were not able to provide comparative data, with spokesperson Allison Sparkes saying, “it is difficult to compare a year-to-date figure in this context” and that the update was to “advise of the associated arrests and charges made specific to this operation plan.”
The Star also reported that the reduction in shootings Saunders identified as part of the update followed a seasonal pattern that typically sees fewer shootings outside the summer months.
A previous police approach to flare-ups of gun violence was to flood areas with police and use controversial tactics, such as carding — the often random stopping, questioning and documentation of citizens in non-criminal encounters — and using officers unfamiliar with the neighbourhoods to do the work.
It did little to make people feel safe.
“In fact it does the opposite, it makes young people feel like they’ve got to take matters into their own hands and they can’t rely in the police to protect themselves, and it just goes around and around and around,” says University of Toronto sociologist Akwasi Owusu-Bempah.
Wortley echoes that, and says “what the Toronto police, in my opinion, used to engage in was blanket crime prevention. We’re going to target a neighbourhood. We’re going to come in strong. Anybody who lives in these areas is going to be viewed as a potential suspect, stopped, questioned.
“That type of policing erodes confidence and contributes to a lack of legitimacy.”
Police today recognize this erodes trust in police, which does not help reduce violence.
Visibility alone — without the intrusiveness of police tactics employed by the now abandoned Toronto Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy — is worth something, say experts. Higher visibility brings comfort in neighbourhoods where simply being outside can result in injury and death.
Luca Berardi, an assistant professor in the social psychology program at McMaster University, spent five years studying and observing life in Toronto’s Lawrence Heights neighbourhood, and wrote a dissertation that, in part, touched on what people want from police.
In a telling passage, he describes watching parents and older siblings dropping off kids at an after-school program, and of the 50 he observed, only two were not women. He asked a neighbourhood recreation co-ordinator about this, expecting an answer about “absentee fathers in the ghetto.”
It had everything to do with police scheduling, the co-ordinator explained. The program, which started at 4 p.m., came when police were changing shifts, and that was when there would sometimes be shootings, with the shooters knowing police would not be there. The men knew this, and avoided being outside during that time.
“In Lawrence Heights,” writes Berardi, “hoodwise residents learned to avoid the streets in the absence of police.”
Are there anti-gang approaches that are working elsewhere?
One success story in the U.S. is Operation Ceasefire, hatched up in Boston by David Kennedy, a criminal justice professor at Harvard, and now at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.
Kennedy’s approach to tackling homicides was to think of those doing the violence as human beings, sitting down with them, talking and appealing for the violence to stop. Boston went through a period of extreme violence in the ’80s and ’90s due to the drug trade. Police responded with an aggressive blanket approach, stopping and searching young men, most of them racialized.
It did net drugs and guns, but the violence continued and trust in police was largely lost by the city’s Black community. Police, clergy, probation and youth workers started walking the streets and learned more about the young people swept up in the violence. Kennedy became involved, wanting to do something practical. Together, they identified 300 key young men.
The story is nicely told in a 2018 online documentary by the New Yorker and Retro Report, titled “Operation Ceasefire and the Unlikely Advent of Precision Policing.” Operation Ceasefire targeted the 300 young men, and told them they would stop doing so if the violence stopped, and that there were other things they could be doing with their lives. The young men started handing over their guns.
The program is now in use in a number of U.S. cities.
Get more of today’s top stories in your inbox
Sign up for the Star’s Morning Headlines newsletter for a briefing of the day’s big news.
Sign Up Now
Based on what Toronto police have said, Wortley suggests they might be intending to use “greater levels of non-obtrusive police surveillance to identify who truly is involved in these activities, target them for the heavy policing, but also try to build community ties.”
For it to work, says Wortley, an “important part of these targeted strategies is giving known offenders a chance to really redeem themselves. There has to be a parallel to any policing method — community development methods that resonate with the community and lead to them feeling validated as citizens. That, ‘You are investing in us, you are not only trying to incarcerate us.’”
In a city that is increasingly more expensive to live in, with a shrinking middle class and growing divide between rich and poor, Wortley wonders where the hope and opportunities will come from for the young men.
What other policing methods are being used?
This fall, Toronto police quietly launched a wholly new approach to combating violence in the city, via the force’s gang prevention task force.
For the last few weeks, Det.-Const. Ron Chhinzer has initiated the early phase of the task force’s work: hosting 31 town halls across Toronto, one in each of Toronto’s neighbourhood improvement areas. The aim is twofold — to educate communities about gang risk factors, and to hear directly from youth, parents, social workers and community leaders about what they need to address the root causes of gang violence.
“There’s a definite need to be able to not only provide public safety, in terms of going out and arresting violent gang members but also finding a way of potentially getting a gang member out of a gang,” said Chhinzer, an officer for 13 years with Toronto police who has previously worked with Toronto’s guns and gangs unit.
Chhinzer, who heads the task force alongside his partner Det. Jason Kondo, has facilitated 10 town halls so far and says each one has seen difficult but productive conversations. Among the rules of participation is that those in attendance don’t judge each other, and that comments stay focused on solutions.
Though he offers anonymity to those in attendance — so far, it’s mainly been adults, such as concerned parents — Chhinzer says he isn’t looking to get specifics about problematic individuals or groups, but rather get a broader snapshot of the issues and possible solutions in the community to prevent or intervene in gang activity.
After the completion of the town halls in April, the task force will evaluate the information gathered and compile a list of recommendations.
“This is a humanitarian mission — (gang violence) is almost an epidemic in every major city,” Chhinzer said in an interview.
At the same time, the gang prevention task force is also educating 2,000 front line police officers about the risk factors for gang involvement. The idea, Chhinzer said, is to provide police with alternatives to introducing a youth into the criminal justice system.
“We’re saying, if you come across a kid who might be on a path to gang involvement, stressing to (the officers) that, instead of laying charges, they could be better suited to helping identify the correct social services,” Chhinzer said.
Among those the gang prevention task force is educating are those in the force’s expanding neighbourhood officer program. The initiative — another prong in the police attempt to combat gang violence — sees cops walking the beat in the same area for a minimum of four years. The hope is to gradually improve public trust by allowing officers and residents to get to know one another.
There are 127 neighbourhood community officers waking the beat in 35 neighbourhoods. They wear modified uniforms and their vehicles have distinctive labelling. They work closely with residents and community organizations on addressing crime in the areas. The goal is to forge relationships and build trust.
“Acting as ambassadors for the Toronto Police Service, they work collaboratively with residents as well as community agencies to build sustainable solutions,” reads the service’s website.
First introduced in 2013, the results are encouraging. People in the community feel safer and more willing to talk to the officers, according to Doug Thomson, from Humber College’s criminal justice degree program. He is studying the program and a full report is expected next year.
“We often talk about police being transient — they just don’t stay in the neighbourhood long enough to build trust, and trust is very important,” deputy chief Peter Yuen said last month.
What does the data say about policing efforts?
Researchers say it’s unhelpful to look at crime statistics in a vacuum.
Claims that “crime is on the rise” in any given period can often ignore the statistical reality that the city’s violent crime has ebbed and flowed over the long-term. That trend line reveals that the history of, for example, violent summers filled with shootings, has been cyclical over the last 15 years.
It also shows crime has come in waves regardless of the fluctuating number of officers, levels of funding and changing laws.
For example, in a CTV News interview with police union president McCormack, he cited there being 900 fewer officers available for deployment today compared to the 2010 complement of uniformed officers.
But looking at the indicators of violence to which he was responding, suggests there is not a link between the number of officers and the increase or decrease in shootings.
In 2010, when there were some 5,600 deployed officers on the force, those injured and killed in shootings in the city totalled 170, according to Toronto police data. That dipped to a low in 2014 at 103 victims when uniformed officer complement was decreasing, at around 5,200. The number of victims increased in 2015 to 161 as the number of officers increased slightly to almost 5,300.
Earlier reporting by the Star also found that there was little correlation between the number police officers and Statistics Canada’s crime severity index, which measures the frequency and severity of crime.
“I think we have to have the right balance, but I don’t think that simply suggesting more officers will simply displace or dissuade gun crimes and so on,” said Councillor Michael Thompson, a former member of the Toronto Police Services Board who has looked critically at the Toronto police’s budget and leadership.
Those who work with offenders and youth say the cyclical nature can also be partly attributed to a rise of a younger generation taking the place of those who are killed or arrested — in communities where the same lack of jobs and other opportunities persist.
How does the response from police compare to previous years?
The police response through these cycles has been familiar, though it hasn’t always been delivered with the same tone.
In March 2000, following a daytime Yonge Street shooting involving two rival groups of young men amid concerns of gang violence throughout the city, then police chief Julian Fantino lamented the ongoing violence.
“The shooting was not a unique situation, and that’s distressing,” he said.
That was five years before what became known as the Year of the Gun in 2005, before 15-year-old Jane Creba was shot and killed in almost the same spot.
In the intervening years, Fantino became increasingly agitated as he advocated for more front line officers, calling the violence “open warfare.”
Ahead of the violent of summer of 2005, Bill Blair, who replaced Fantino as chief, championed large sweeps arresting dozens of gang members he said had been plaguing communities with violence.
“The impact on public safety has been dramatic and, I believe, will be long lasting,” Blair said then.
But the year now stands as a marker of a historically high level of violence.
There were 231 shooting deaths and injuries that year. That number has been outdone only by the 236 victims tallied last year.
Though Blair put on a tough front, vowing to track down alleged gang members largely responsible — there were many arrests, including several in Creba’s killing following a major co-ordinated probe — in an interview the following year reflecting on violence, he told the Star there was still much work to do.
“Some of the social, economic and cultural conditions that give rise to violence in the first place, these things have not been fully addressed, “ he said. “We still have serious unemployment problems. There are issues of exclusion and disparity in some of those communities.”
Fantino too, seen as one of the city’s most adamantly tough-on-crime, boots-on-the-ground chiefs, admitted in 2001 that policing wasn’t the only answer.
Calling it a “defining moment” for the city after a spate of shootings, he called for “proactive and preventative action.”
“This situation goes beyond a quick fix or any kind of finger-pointing, “ he said. “What people need to appreciate and understand is the fact that crime, victimization, drugs, gangs and guns are the sad manifestation of many societal (ills) for which we are all accountable.”
When Fantino was asked what police were doing, his answer was not so different from the one Saunders gave reporters recently, though his tone was characteristically sharp:
“Well, there you go. You’re pointing fingers. What are you going to do? Where is everyone else? I’m here. Our people are here. We’ve been working on this issue. This is not new to us. We’re totally committed and have dedicated the resources we can to these issues, but you don’t need to ask that question of me, “ he said. “You need to ask it of all the other people who aren’t here today.”
“Unless you have real community development,” says Wortley, “things will either stay the same or, if not, get worse.”