Ask Toronto Police Chief William Blair how safe Canada’s biggest city is and he will tell you that the statistics speak volumes.
“We’ve gone through seven consecutive years of violence-reduction in Toronto, and last year we had the lowest number of homicides in three decades,” he said in an interview.
“So right up until Monday we were doing okay.”
And then, quite clearly, everything was not okay.
On a sweltering evening, a working-class east-side neighbourhood was traumatized by the worst mass shooting in the city’s history.
Two innocent young people, including a 14-year-old girl, were shot dead and 23 other bystanders were injured in an exchange of gunfire that police strongly believe involved a clash between two gang rivals unloading their weapons at a Scarborough block party.
The mass shooting came closely on the heels of three other recent outbreaks of gun violence in public places, including another double homicide in the food court of the Eaton Centre on Yonge Street.
And however much crime in general may have dipped, shootings have not.
So far this year, the number of occurrences is up by 33 per cent compared to the same date in 2011; the number of people killed or injured has risen by 42 per cent; and – perhaps most striking – the number of reported instances in which guns were fired without anyone being hit has increased by 67 per cent.
How to reconcile these two apparently conflicting realities?
Traditionally, it has been true that the critical component of personal safety is not where you live or work, nor is it the security measures you might take. Rather, it is whom you know.
Now, at least in part, that conventional wisdom seems to have been upended.
Chief Blair perceives a range of factors, the most visible being a profound change in gang culture.
He spent years as an undercover cop, knows Toronto’s toughest streets better than most, and recalls well the days when a gangland killing usually meant a carefully planned execution.
“It would be a very targeted hit where someone would decide they were going to kill somebody and they would go in and do it,” he said.
“It was not done in a public display, it was focused primarily on the intended target. I’m not a psychologist, but culturally there was a certain sense among those involved that those things were between themselves.”
These days, “a characteristic common to some of these gangs is that the violence takes place in public settings, with complete indifference to the fact that there are other people there, even children.
“Part of what I see glorified in those involved in this gang culture is very public, indiscriminate violence. We’re all struck by the depraved indifference and the way in which people seem willing to use extreme violence, including firearms.”
He dates the change to about 10 years ago.
“Our gang problems really began to emerge in 2002-2003 when people began to emulate the behaviour of their American counterparts. The American influence and gang culture began well before that, but waving the gun around and the public display of weapons became much more evident.”
And the guns have changed, too.
“The weapons are becoming more dangerous,” Chief Blair said.
“We’re seeing guns with 14, 15 rounds, high-capacity magazines. In another generation, we might see three or four rounds discharged, but now we’re seeing more bullets flying.”
But accompanying the guns is a kind of recycling of bad guys.
Scarborough’s gang problem was severely dented by a trio of big police operations several years ago, in which scores of players were scooped up and jailed.
Now, “people we dealt with effectively five or six years ago, some of them are getting back out,” Chief Blair said.
“They’re not all getting involved like they were, but some are. And what we’re also seeing is the next generation of gangbangers emerging, picking up the baton. There’s some new leadership stepping up, and you can see the efforts to re-establish themselves. You see it expressed in social media, they’re putting out their own videos, And there’s some old rivalries being renewed.”
So was Monday’s outrage tied to the re-emergence of the Galloway Boys and the Malvern Crew, the two gangs primarily targeted in the big sweeps?
“Certainly that’s the word on the street, and some of our intelligence and feedback indicates that that may be part of it,” Chief Blair said.
“If there are rivalries being renewed, I’ve got to be concerned. I’m not trying to create an atmosphere of fear, but I want those who might be witnesses to what took place on Monday to understand the urgency of coming forward.
“All of us have a sense of the livability of the City of Toronto, and if public space isn’t safe space then it fundamentally affects how we see ourselves and how we see our city, and we have to be protective of our public space.”