Sergeant Chris Laush is eager to get on the road.
Stepping into an unmarked car behind a police station in Toronto’s west end, the veteran cop explains there’s a man nearby who “needs to get arrested.” The only trouble, he acknowledges, is that the best place to find that man is in the meeting the suspect is expected to be leading this afternoon.
The neighbourhood is a hub for the city’s Somali community, a group Toronto police are eager to make inroads with after a series of deadly shootings. The man Sgt. Laush is looking to arrest isn’t of Somali descent, but some at the station are wary that a showy entrance could put off the very individuals police want to build trust with.
After some deliberation, the officer puts the arrest on hold. “You don’t want to go in there and stir it up if you don’t have to,” he says.
As members of Toronto’s Somali community grapple with how to respond to the murders of six young men since June of this year, police have quietly set up a two-officer task force focused on improving relations and building trust with Canadian-Somalis in the city.
It’s the first time police are reaching out to the community in a consistent, organized way, says Superintendent Ron Taverner, who is responsible for 23 Division. He said the move is based on a surge in firearms-related offences over recent years in a neighbourhood where a large number of Canadian-Somalis live.
The police also hope to increase residents’ willingness to share information about crimes near their homes.
“We were not getting the cooperation that we hoped for in the community and it was apparent that we needed to build those inroads,” he said.
Supt. Taverner says he knows that won’t be easy. Neither Sgt. Laush nor his partner, Constable Horace Harvey, are Somali, and the officers could face an uphill battle convincing some of the young men who have had negative experiences with police that they are worthy of their trust. Skeptical Canadian-Somalis note the size of the task force seems inadequate, and the officers’ lack of fluency in the culture and language will make it difficult for them interact.
Still, Sgt. Laush knows the community like few of his fellow officers could. He spent most of his career policing the west-end neighbourhoods in 23 Division that are home to a large concentration of Canadian-Somalis, and he approaches his job with a practised curiosity, talking to everyone and piecing together fragments of information to better understand what’s driving the crime that exists in the area.
After three years away, he was transferred back to 23 Division this fall. Soon after his return, Warsame Ali and Suleiman Ali, both 26 (and unrelated), became the fifth and sixth young men of Somali descent to die as a result of gun violence in Toronto. (Police say that while both had minor clashes with police in the past, they were not believed to have been gang-involved.) They were found behind a public-housing complex on Jamestown Crescent, a short drive south from the 23 Division police station.
Loud and jovial, Sgt. Laush’s nickname is “Flash,” earned after he yelled at a man for snapping photos of him arresting the man’s friend. “I guess I didn’t like that too much,” he recalls, grinning. He’s quick to admit that his first impulse is to investigate and arrest, and he’s still trying to familiarize himself with a style of policing that’s more about “building bridges” than cracking down on crime.
His sometimes confrontational style is balanced, he says, by his partner, Constable Harvey. The soft-spoken officer spent the last two years focused on community work as part of Toronto police’s Community Response Unit.
“My main objective is to learn what the Somali community wants and how we can help,” Constable Harvey said. “We need to know what their concerns are before we start making decisions for them.”
Both officers say they plan to meet with community and religious leaders in the coming weeks, and they are participating in after-school homework clubs and mentoring programs for Canadian-Somali youth.
Constable Harvey, whose background is Jamaican, said he’s taking steps to learn about the culture and history of the people he’s working with, educating himself by reading about the new president of Somalia – a key topic of conversation among many older Somali men – and picking up a few simple Somali phrases.
Sgt. Laush says his partner surprised him one day when the pair came across a young man who was rolling a joint. The youth claimed innocence until Constable Harvey pressed him with a word he’d picked up in Somali, asking him if he was really telling the truth. The young man hung his head, and Constable Harvey left a phone number with his father, telling him to call if the officers could be of any help.
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.