As he prepares to roll out a $4.5-million operation to tackle gun and gang violence over the next three months, Toronto’s police chief promises his plan will do more than just put additional officers on the street.
At a news conference Wednesday, two days after Mayor John Tory announced that he had secured millions of dollars from all levels of government after a rash of shootings since the August long weekend, Chief Mark Saunders unveiled the details of his plan to curb the violence.
Dubbed Project Community Space, the undertaking will run from Aug. 15 to Oct. 31, and will include officers from across the city under the centralized command of the service’s Integrated Gun and Gang Task Force. It will include bail compliance monitoring, enhanced engagement with community programs and an increased presence and visibility of officers in areas frequently associated with street gangs and gun violence.
“We have listened to community members who are experiencing an inability to live, work and enjoy their neighbourhoods this summer due to gun violence and safety concerns,” Chief Saunders said.
“I’ve seen first-hand that communities are suffering at the hands of street gangs, and the trouble that comes along with their activity – much of which is taking place in residential neighbourhoods. Our plan will make it harder for that activity to continue.”
The federal government contributed $1.5-million toward this operation, and the city pledged to contribute another $1.5-million. The province will also allot $1.5-million of previously announced policing funds for this project.
There have been more than 400 shooting victims recorded in Toronto so far in 2019. While shootings themselves are on the rise, fatalities (20 so far this year, compared with 30 this time last year) are at a three-year low.
At the news conference Wednesday, Chief Saunders acknowledged that this has begun to feel like an annual song and dance, as police scramble each summer to respond to spikes in gun crimes.
Last July, for example, after a similar spike in shootings, the police force received an additional $3-million to deploy 200 extra officers on overnight shifts across the city throughout the summer. But while these most recent funds will be similarly used to provide an “added layer” of additional police resources over the next 11 weeks, Chief Saunders stressed that this approach will be more collaborative.
He said that the Toronto Police Service (TPS) will continue to work with and listen to community partners, one of which is Toronto Community Housing Corp. (TCHC).
Bill Anderson, senior director and chief special constable of TCHC’s community safety unit, said the violence has undoubtedly affected residents and their ability to feel safe in their communities. One of the most traumatizing events took place earlier this month when 16-year-old Hanad Ali was killed after he was gunned down in the stairwell of a TCHC apartment building in North York.
Mr. Anderson is optimistic about their collaboration with the TPS.
“The important thing about this conversation is not only keeping it going, but the fact that more people are coming to the table and staying at the table in this discussion,” he said.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was in Toronto earlier this week and met with Mr. Tory to discuss the issue of gun violence. Mr. Trudeau has promised to make gun control a top election issue this fall – though the Liberal Party will not be revealing its plans until the campaign begins.
Asked where he stands on a handgun ban – which Mr. Tory has called for – Chief Saunders said anything that reduces a firearm from being in a person’s hand definitely has some benefit, but stopped short of taking a definitive position.
“My focus is on people. People who have the will to shoot other people. People who are motivated to shoot other people … the gun is the tool, but the people who are motivated to take that tool and use it, they are our primary focus.”
He says he is heartened by the fact that decision-makers are finally recognizing that this problem goes beyond law enforcement, and will require a holistic approach.
“I will say that when it comes to gun violence, there isn’t a government that isn’t all hands on deck to help solve it,” he said.
Come fall, the guns-and-gangs unit will organize gang prevention town halls across the city aimed at educating and supporting families who live in areas most affected by gang activity and whose children may be at risk of recruitment by gangs in their neighbourhoods.