There is surely a strong temptation, and likely pressure from within his own force, for a police chief to use a spate of gang violence to make the case for more funding and more officers. It is to the considerable credit of Toronto’s Bill Blair that he has eschewed such attempts at empire-building in favour of trying to figure out how he can do more with what he has.
At a meeting this week with The Globe’s editorial board, Chief Blair offered a strikingly nuanced take on how to make troubled neighbourhoods safer. While lamenting the “depraved indifference” of shooters who indiscriminately opened fire at a block party, and a gang culture in which notoriety can be seen as something to cultivate, he dismissed the idea – propagated by federal and municipal politicians seeking to score law-and-order points – that the criminal justice system alone will make streets safer. As he put it: “You can’t arrest your way out of this.”
In welcome contrast to Mayor Rob Ford’s mockery of “hug-a-thug” programs, Chief Blair underscored the importance of intervention aimed at preventing youth from entering gangs. Through measures such as recruiting new officers from at-risk communities, and setting up a summer employment program for kids who live in them, Toronto’s force is already making considerable efforts. Still, Chief Blair acknowledged the need to continue finding ways to strengthen the relationship between police and social services, and to better understand and engage with the areas and demographics that suffer most from crime.
Mistrust of police does not make that easy. But there must also be some onus on the communities themselves. While there are undoubtedly officers who are less enlightened than their chief, the leadership’s openness to working collaboratively to find solutions should be reciprocated. Leaders in neighbourhoods suffering high crime rates have a role to play, too, in crafting anti-gang policies. And they could do more to encourage co-operation with police in responding to violent crimes, which often is still lacking.
As Chief Blair emphasized, Toronto remains for the most part an unusually safe city. That message is important, he said, because there is a danger of law-abiding people becoming fearful of public spaces, which in turn could give criminals free rein. It also means that, rather than needing more resources, police should reallocate existing ones where they are most needed.
The question is how effectively they are deployed. And while that remains to be seen, with regard to areas that have become unsafe, it’s encouraging that Toronto’s chief is setting his mind to it in such a sophisticated manner.