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Toronto Police Sgt. Chris Laush, one of two officers now completely dedicated to working with the Somali community in 23 Division in Toronto, shows some of the division’s more troubled spots on Oct. 4, 2012. He's in the Jamestown area where two men from the Somali community were recently shot to death. Faded flowers from a memorial mark the area nearby. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
Toronto Police Sgt. Chris Laush, one of two officers now completely dedicated to working with the Somali community in 23 Division in Toronto, shows some of the division’s more troubled spots on Oct. 4, 2012. He's in the Jamestown area where two men from the Somali community were recently shot to death. Faded flowers from a memorial mark the area nearby. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

Inside Toronto Police’s two-man plan for helping the Somali-Canadian community Add to ...

Sgt. Laush steers his car toward a cluster of six high-rise apartment buildings on the northeast corner of Dixon Road and Kipling Avenue. He points to a young man in a Detroit Red Wings cap who glares at us when we stop at a light beside him. “Nice colour,” he says. “But you really think he likes hockey?”

The area has long been claimed as Dixon Bloods territory, and Sgt. Laush says he’s watched self-professed gang members sell drugs from atop perches on picnic tables in the city-owned land between the apartment buildings.

Police acknowledge they know much less about this area now than they did several years ago. Before he left 23 Division, Sgt. Laush compiled binders containing photos of people police had identified as known and suspected gang members. When he returned, he was dismayed to find that his work documenting membership in the Dixon Bloods had been literally picked apart, with officers removing pages they needed for the case they were working on and never returning them.

In the three years since Sgt. Laush left, he says guns have become an increasingly common sight. “A few years ago, you’d never see [gang-involved youth] with a gun,” he says. “And now you’re getting calls of them banging off rounds in the park.”

In Jamestown, a 10-minute drive north, the Doomstown Crips (also known as the Jamestown Crew) were long considered the dominant gang – though many alleged members were jailed after a massive police sweep in 2006. Until Warsame Ali and Suleiman Ali were shot and killed there in September, residents say the area had been quiet for several years.

Mahad Yusuf, who directs Midaynta Community Services, said he hasn’t met the liaison officers yet, but he thinks the police initiative is a step in the right direction. “I think it’s a great idea to have a dialogue. Because the community has been working in isolation and the police are working in isolation too,” he said.

Fuad Mohamed, a high-school student who mentors other Canadian-Somali youth, said many of his peers have lost trust in the police. He described an afternoon when he said he was chased by plainclothes police through his Lawrence Heights neighbourhood. They didn’t identify themselves, he said, and he ran away thinking he was being attacked by strangers. He ended up being tackled into a pile of snow outside his family’s home on a freezing winter day.

“When we talk about the Somali community, I personally believe, Somali youth myself, I feel that we’re being targeted by the police,” he said, adding, “honestly, there are a lot of Somali youth that have a lot of potential in this society.”

Mr. Mohamed said most people he knows who ended up in the drug trade felt they had few alternatives. “Some people will do what they have to,” he said.

Warsame Ali’s parents have publicly thanked the homicide detectives for their work on their son’s case, and have been active in trying to bring attention to his death. They recently canvassed the Jamestown neighbourhood where he was killed, hoping someone would offer clues. And Habiba Adan is part of a group calling on the province and the Toronto District School Board to do more to help young Somalis succeed.

While they’re pleased that police from 23 Division are trying to get to know the community better, Warsame Ali’s parents, Ms. Adan and Mohamed Hussein, said they’re skeptical about the impact the new liaison officers will have.

“What can two people do in a community that’s huge and scattered throughout the west end?” Mr. Hussein said.

Both said they would like to see Toronto police become more pro-active in recruiting young Canadian-Somalis to serve as frontline officers.

Police employ one officer of Somali descent, but he works in the city’s east end, said Supt. Taverner. He said the force would like to hire additional officers, but a hiring freeze has made that impossible. Still, part of the liaison officers’ work is meant to encourage young men from the community to apply for future jobs, he said.

“I make no bones about it, that it’s more difficult for these [liaison] officers to have that dialogue,” he said. “But when we only have one Somali officer we don’t have much choice. We have to make the effort.”

The original print version and an earlier online version of this article incorrectly stated that Fuad Mohamed lives in the Jane-Finch neighbourhood. This article has been corrected.

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