A network of police wiretaps and other gang-surveillance measures were put in place Tuesday following the worst mass shooting in Toronto’s history.
Rarely has Toronto Police Chief William Blair warned that an act of murderous gang violence might trigger retribution. But as homicide detectives pieced together events, his tone was ominously unequivocal.
“We are very concerned not only with the quick resolution and solving of this crime but the potential for retaliatory violence,” he said in reference to the mayhem in a hardscrabble Scarborough neighbourhood Monday night that left two people dead and 23 others with gunshot wounds, including a 22-month-old toddler.
Detectives swiftly concluded the terrifying gun battle involved two shooters firing wildly at each other at an open-air party and that it was gang-related.
“We’ve seen what I think is a new trend in the city – violent activities that are taking place in a very crowded public environment where innocent citizens are put at risk,” said Councillor Michael Thompson, vice-chair of the Toronto Police Services Board.
Of the 28 homicides in Toronto so far this year, close to half could be considered to have occurred in a public place. Last year, the figure was about 25 per cent – the same as in 2010.
Premier Dalton McGuinty said he spoke to Mayor Rob Ford and Chief Blair on Tuesday and proposed further talks on the situation. He said he will consider extending the Youth Challenge Fund, which earmarked about $35-million for programs in 13 priority neighbourhoods, but runs out next year. The site of the shooting, an east-end community housing project near Lawrence Avenue East and Morningside Avenue, isn’t in one of the 13 neighbourhoods, but borders one.
“It’s a matter of making choices,” Mr. McGuinty said, adding that the money will have to come from other programs.
Inter-gang rivalry has long bred reckless gunplay and numerous innocents have been caught in the crossfire.
But Monday’s double homicide comes closely on the heels of three other shootings in highly public places: On June 2, two people were fatally shot and five others wounded when a gunman opened fire at the downtown Eaton Centre; 16 days later, an execution-style homicide took place at a busy Little Italy cafe on College Street; and on Canada Day, a man was shot in the chest during fireworks celebrations at the city’s Beach district.
What lends particular urgency to the police response this time, with as many as 200 additional officers and anti-gang resources deployed, is the sheer scale of what took place at around 10:40 that night.
Never before in Toronto have 25 different people been struck by bullets in a single incident. Remarkably, only one of the wounded sustained serious injuries; many of the victims were hit below the waist and in some cases were struck by the same bullets. A handgun was found nearby.
Witness accounts suggest strongly that Monday’s violence stemmed from a harmless get-together for young people that went badly wrong when outsiders showed up later.
Organizer Shannon Longshaw, 28, said the events on Danzig Street started with a barbecue in her back yard for her three young children and other kids who live nearby. Throughout the sweltering afternoon there was face painting and other activities. Eight police officers on bikes stopped by and departed.
Much later, amid a crowd estimated at upward of 200 people, the gunfire erupted.
One of those shot dead was Joshua Yasay, 23. The other was 14-year-old Shyanne Charles.
Among the wounded was Enriquita Mamaril, 58, who didn’t realize she had been shot until her friends pointed to a bullet hole in her skirt. She had been dancing to reggae music in the packed crowd when she heard a succession of gunshots.
“It looked like a war. Like, ‘Bang, bang, bang, bang,’ ” she said.
She was treated in hospital and released. And despite what happened she said the neighbourhood has become safer in recent years, thanks to a stepped-up police presence.
Others are less sure, and suspicion immediately fell on two rival street gangs that have long had a presence in Scarborough, albeit a diminished one since a police crackdown began eight years ago: One from the Malvern area, the other from the Kingston-Galloway neighbourhood.
Victor Beausoleil, who runs Redemption Reintegration Services in Scarborough, said shots are frequently fired in Kingston-Galloway, where weapons are abundant, and that the root cause of the violence is no mystery.
“Poverty and unemployment equals crime and violence,” he said.
“Until we can provide some meaningful employment opportunities for these young people, they’ll never become contributing members of the community, it’ll never happen,” he said.
Later Tuesday evening, when politicians including MPs John McKay and Rathika Sitsabaiesan addressed a press conference in the area calling for more support for youth, residents were angered by the rhetoric. One woman drew applause when she called out, “You call us low income but we all work.”
Whoever committed Monday’s mass shooting, Chief Blair was clearly of the view that the threat of revenge shootings is real. He said extra uniformed officers will bolster police presence in the neighbourhood “and any other area where we believe retaliatory violence may take place,” citing as examples Rexdale and the Jane-Finch corridor, both of which are home to gangs.
In fact, on the other side of the city, a man was shot and killed on Tuesday night near Jane Street and Eglinton Avenue West, police said. It was unclear if the incident was connected to Monday night’s violence.
In a marked change of tone from previous remarks, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, too, declared war on violent gangsters. “We must use every legal means to make life for these thugs miserable, to put them behind bars, or to run them out of town,” he said in a statement released Tuesday night.
“We will not rest until being a gang member is a miserable, undesirable life.”
With reports from Kelly Grant, Karen Howlett, Jane Switzer, Adrian Morrow, Stephen Spencer Davis, Rick Cash and Stuart Thompson