Two weeks after Toronto was shaken by the largest mass shooting in its history, Police Chief Bill Blair sees the gang violence at its root not as one neighbourhood’s problem but a social issue that demands solutions from Toronto’s business and community leaders.
In a wide-ranging interview with The Globe and Mail Tuesday, Chief Blair said police keep track of people involved in or associated with gangs – roughly 2,100 – and of those about 500 or 600 are considered “really violent.”
The long-term solution, he said, involves preventing these mostly young men from so-called priority neighbourhoods from going down this road by interceding in their lives when they are much younger. That involves continuing to provide opportunities, including employment, but first requires learning “more about these kids and find out where we lost them.”
“By the time you go, with a 14- or 15-year-old, and try to get them into a program and play basketball, some of these young guys are so completely lost to us that they represent such a significant danger, all we can do is protect everyone from them,” Chief Blair said.
He said the police force employs about 150 teenagers from priority neighbourhoods each summer, a total of about 1,000 people over the years. While these kids aren’t the ones likely to get in trouble – their progress is tracked after the program and only one participant has been criminally charged – Chief Blair said it’s about police outreach to these communities.
He said he’s now working with the province to get employers from Toronto’s business community to accept kids from these neighbourhoods into their ranks for summer employment.
In order to reach kids earlier, Toronto will be piloting a program created in Prince Albert, Sask. The program tries to better co-ordinate policing and social services to intervene early on when risk factors – including domestic violence, alcoholism and abuse – are identified in a child’s life.
He hopes that intervening in this way will eventually halt the kind of violence that Toronto has witnessed this year – gunfire erupting on a Saturday in a food court at the Eaton Centre, a fatal shooting at a Little Italy café and most recently the shooting a fortnight ago on Danzig Street in Scarborough, where 23 were injured and two were killed at a block party.
Chief Blair said gang and criminal culture has changed in the city, which was witnessed in 2005 with the Boxing Day shooting of Jane Creba on Yonge Street.
“It’s not a particularly recent phenomenon because we’ve seen it in other incidents,” he said. “[It’s] a depraved indifference, there doesn’t seem to be any consideration to the innocents who are present, even children.”
He said he’s been discussing within the force the desire some young gang members have to be recognized, something that’s fuelled by a rise in social media, where gang members are posting videos and photos as well as challenging each other.
“What we often find, we too often find, is some very young people who will be trying to establish a reputation, they seek to be notorious,” he said.
This is coupled, he said, with police seeing more powerful weapons and higher-capacity magazines in Canada. He said 20 years ago, pistols with six rounds were the norm, but police are now seeing more semi-automatics.
“When there’s a lot more bullets in play the risk goes up,” Chief Blair said, adding that there “were some 22 rounds fired at Danzig, for example.”
On Danzig Street and across Toronto, Chief Blair said police are trying to increase a positive presence, which includes encouraging people to come forward with tips. Toronto, unlike some American and Canadian cities, has neighbourhoods where people are out 24 hours a day – and he hopes to preserve that by beefing up the police presence to make them feel safe.
“If people become fearful of public space, the impact can be enormous,” he said. “It begets firearms and it creates an atmosphere where criminality can thrive, and so one of the things we defend here is public space.”
Investigators said in the days after the Danzig shooting that they were getting little help from people who were at the party. “In gang violence, I think fear is the most significant factor at play,” Chief Blair said. “People are afraid to come forward and we understand that.”
It’s part of the reason a compulsory overtime program has been put in place for August, which will see more police on the streets starting with the Scotiabank Caribbean Carnival Toronto this month and then an extra daily average of 328 officers in high-crime areas.
Chief Blair said that when he talked with Premier Dalton McGuinty last week, he did not ask for extra funding, adding he would make do with his existing resources.
He said the Danzig investigation is progressing and tips are starting to come in. “We’re making progress on that case, fairly significant progress and these things need to be done right,” he said.