The debate over the best way to deal with urban crime must be the stalest in all of politics. It plays over and over, year after year, decade after decade, an endless loop that most sensible people tuned out long ago.
On one side stands the hang ‘em high crowd. The best way to control crime, they say, is to crack down on the bad guys. Tougher sentences, more arrests, more cops on the street.
On the other is the root-causes gang. They say all crime stems from social conditions: poverty, racism, mental illness, homelessness. The bad guys turned bad because of the hardships they faced. In the words of West Side Story, they’re depraved because they’re deprived. So don’t toss them in jail, give them a job and a home.
This week in Toronto, the old loop started yet again when Mayor John Tory called for a bump in the police budget. The idea didn’t come out of nowhere. The city has been shaken by a series of violent crimes: a stabbing on the subway, a mass shooting at a condo, the murder of a homeless man after what authorities say was an attack by a gang of teenaged girls.
Mr. Tory wants to spend an extra $48-million on policing, hire 200 more cops and put 50 more special constables on the TTC, the city’s transit service. Some of the new cops would work downtown, where business owners have been asking for a bigger police presence to keep the peace. Others would work on missing persons cases, a response to the case of serial killer Bruce McArthur, who roamed undetected for close to a decade as victim after victim went missing.
Still others would serve as neighbourhood officers, tasked with rebuilding frayed trust with local communities. The 911 service, which has been facing complaints about slow response times, would get more help as well.
Other cities are taking similar steps as concern over public safety grows. Vancouver’s new mayor Ken Sim plans to add 100 cops and 100 mental-health nurses to work with them. Calgary’s police service is asking for more money so it, too, can staff up.
Yet from the moment Mr. Tory proposed his budget hike, the root-causes gang was all over him. What possible good could more cops do for anyone? Why wasn’t he spending $50-million on social housing or childcare instead?
One city councillor, Josh Matlow, baldly stated that “there’s absolutely no evidence to suggest that the number of officers or the amount we invest in police has any effect on crime.” What’s needed instead, he argued, is more job training, trauma counselling and help for at-risk youth.
Mr. Tory responded that it shouldn’t be a matter of either-or. He wants to both beef up the police force and attack the root causes of crime. Just a couple of days after making his pitch for more police spending he unveiled a $2-billion program to address the city’s housing crisis. It includes measures to help prevent evictions and provide more rental housing. Along with the special constables, he would put more outreach workers on the TTC to help homeless and other vulnerable people who are often found on its vehicles and in its stations.
That is surely the best approach: tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime. What makes this debate so arid is the insistence that it must be one or the other. A modern city needs both a well-resourced police force and a well-resourced program to attack the social problems that often lead to crime.
That should be obvious, but in the current atmosphere, when everything is painted in blacks and whites, and positions are more and more entrenched, it’s getting harder to say. It shouldn’t be. It’s time to stop playing the old hang-’em-high-versus-root-causes recording and tackle urban crime from both directions at once.