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Police officer, Sgt. Chris Laush, gets a thumbs up from an elderly Somail woman in the area between 320, 330 and 340 Dixon Road in Toronto. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
Police officer, Sgt. Chris Laush, gets a thumbs up from an elderly Somail woman in the area between 320, 330 and 340 Dixon Road in Toronto. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

Toronto police expand Somali outreach unit after Dixon Road raid Add to ...

Police are expanding an outreach program with the Somali community in north Toronto after last week’s massive raid on a Dixon Road apartment complex.

Two female officers will join the team of four male officers who currently work in the neighbourhood to ease communication between police and the community, which has a large Somali population. The Somali Liaison Program, an initiative unique to 23 Division, was launched with two officers in October, 2012, and doubled shortly after.

Division Superintendent Ron Taverner and Deputy Chief Peter Sloly announced the team expansion at a community meeting Thursday night at 320 Dixon Rd., one of the buildings targeted in the raid.

“This is a community that we are going to put an investment into more than almost any other community in the city,” Deputy Chief Sloly said, pledging the officers will be on the ground daily.

The idea to expand the Somali outreach unit originated with Idil Burale of Positive Change, an advocacy group focused on youth violence. She sent an e-mail to Deputy Chief Sloly on Tuesday, urging him to dedicate more resources to the Dixon community, including female police officers. He responded and she was pleasantly shocked.

“It is going to take both sides to effect change,” she said.

Ms. Burale said the police need to keep talking to the community to build its trust. Ms. Burale noted 18 per cent of Toronto’s homicides last year involved Somali-Canadian residents, far greater than their proportion of the city’s population.

“I wanted to know why our homicides aren’t being solved and to do that I couldn’t have a wall between me and the people who solve them.”

Police will also be renaming the team to be more inclusive, Supt. Taverner said, after several community members pointed out their focus is not limited to Somalis. They haven’t decided on a new name yet.

Police raided the six-building complex on June 13 and made multiple arrests under Project Traveller, a year-long investigation into the alleged gun- and drug-trafficking activities of a gang called the Dixon City Bloods. Reaching from Toronto to Windsor and Alberta, police say the hub of the gang’s activity is in the area of the Dixon Road apartment complex.

A source told The Globe and Mail that one of the mayor’s aides received a tip that an alleged video that purports to show Mayor Rob Ford smoking crack cocaine was being kept at 320 Dixon Rd. The mayor has stated he does not smoke crack cocaine and is not an addict.

Toronto police are still looking to arrest eight people in connection with Project Traveller, in which more than 40 arrests have already been made.

On Thursday, police announced that a 21-year-old Barrie, Ont., resident, Paul Smith-Bonnick, 21, has been formally charged with trafficking restricted weapons and several other charges.

The mood in the room Thursday was heated.

Some residents praised the reinforced police presence and the arrests.

“We are really feeling safer,” Mohamed Aden said. He told the story of his nephew Warsame Ali, who was shot and killed in a neighbourhood nearby while visiting from Montreal last year. His friend was also shot and killed and the murder is still unsolved. Mr. Aden made an emotional plea for the community to co-operate with police efforts.

“Everyone whose child is now in jail is in a better position than my sister. My sister lost her child. We have to stop burying our children.”

Others were wary but hopeful.

Dixon resident Ahmed Bihi, 27, hopes the police stand by their word and maintain a presence in the community. He believes the police raids were needed and should have happened a long time ago.

He wants the police to address concerns about excessive force during their searches and arrests, but believes they also need to work with the community to prevent criminals from moving back into the condo towers.

“They waited for too long and it affected other communities,” said Mr. Bihi, 27, a Ryerson University student originally from Somalia.

“Every time they [the police] come, they collect their stuff and they leave. They need to stay this time.”

But while some praised police, others pointed fingers. On Wednesday, some members of the Somali community accused police of using excessive and violent force during the raids. Some residents at Thursday’s meeting echoed the complaints, several stepping forward to shout at police and accuse them of unfairly targeting Somali and African communities.

At one point, a young man’s speech became so heated, organizers tried to get him to leave, eventually unplugging his microphone.

Supt.Taverner stepped in to field the attacks by explaining there is a process in place to file complaints against police actions.

Along with the daily police presence, Supt.Taverner said they plan to meet again in one month to hear more input from the community on how the program can be improved and made more effective.

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