A man was shot dead in north Toronto on the last day of 2019, a year that saw the highest number of shootings in the city since the Toronto Police Service began keeping such statistics 15 years ago.
There were 490 shootings in Toronto last year and the city also set a record for shooting-related injuries, at 248. But while those numbers were up, police recorded 44 deaths, down from 51 in 2018. By comparison, 2005’s “year of the gun” logged 53 deaths – the highest on record – and 262 shootings.
Toronto Police’s 31 Division, responsible for the western section of North York, counted the highest number of shootings anywhere in the police service’s 16 divisions, with 105 as of Dec. 29. Meanwhile, 52 Division, which covers Kensington Market, Chinatown, Bay Street, University and the Waterfront, saw the fewest, with 10.
The numbers come as the provincial and federal governments have funnelled millions of dollars to combat gang and gun violence in the city after the 2018 Danforth Avenue shooting, which left two dead and another 13 injured and thrust gun violence into the national spotlight.
But 2019 also had several high-profile shootings. In August, 64-year-old restaurateur Paolo Caputo was killed outside his restaurant in a daylight drive-by shooting in the Roncesvalles neighbourhood. In October, five teenagers were wounded after gunfire broke out in an apartment building hallway – a youth and two men in their early 20s were later arrested and charged with the shooting.
In December, 22-year-old student Jeremy Urbina was shot more than 10 times and killed while taking out the garbage from his apartment building at Leslie Street and Finch Avenue East in what police said was likely a random event.
Police have released no details about the New Year’s Eve shooting homicide, which took place near Neilson Road and Finch Avenue East around 6 p.m.
Toronto’s shootings have been trending upward since 2015, after a record-low 177 in 2014. But those figures can be deceiving, according to University of Toronto sociology professor Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, since the Toronto Police Service is not consistent in how it records shooting statistics, making patterns harder to identify.
As with any police-reported data, the police service’s shooting numbers should be taken with caution, Prof. Owusu-Bempah warned. “We can’t just look at the raw numbers. We can’t look year-over-year; we need to look at long-term trends,” he said.
“Not to dismiss gun violence and gun-related deaths as something that isn’t a problem … we need to think about them in context and contextualize our statistics.”
Toronto Police Service Chief Mark Saunders acknowledged that problem in a year-end news conference in December that focused largely on shootings, saying he was hoping to “streamline the capturing of that a little better” in 2020.
Antonius Clarke, a community organizer and founder of Friends In Toronto Community Service, a charity that provides programs in marginalized communities, said shootings have been ignored for far too long.
“People in the Jane and Finches, the Rexdales and the Regent Parks, they're used to it,” he said. “But now, it's becoming something everyone else is aware of, and they're not willing to get used to it. That's where we're feeling a shift. It's almost to a point where it's unbearable now.”
To Mr. Clarke, the reason for the decrease in deaths, even as shootings overall have grown, is clear. “You have a lot of children who don’t know how to shoot,” he said. “They’ve got a tool in their hands that they don’t know how to use.”
Gang and youth violence need to be seen as a mental-health issue, Mr. Clarke said, and approached in the same way as the opioid crisis. The police also need to make an effort to rebuild trust in the communities most affected by shootings, he said.
At his year-end news conference, Chief Saunders said the service was making progress in its fight against gang violence, the largest contributor to shootings in the city. “I don’t have to tell anyone here that 2019 was a busy year in the city of Toronto,” he said.
Facing increasing pressure to address gun and gang violence, the police announced a series of initiatives in 2019. In April, a gun buyback program netted 3,100 firearms; 2,300 of these were handguns, the firearm of choice for gangs across the city. Late in the summer, the police launched Project Community Space, a 15-week anti-gun-violence effort that resulted in 463 arrests, 1,145 charges and the seizure of roughly 250 firearms. That project was funded through a combined $4.5-million from the city, provincial and federal governments.
Emily Hillstrom, a spokeswoman for Toronto Mayor John Tory, told The Globe and Mail the mayor would ask for additional funding from the Ontario and federal governments to fight gun violence, and would be calling for tougher bail and sentencing laws for gun-related offences.
“The gun violence we have seen this year in our city and cities across Canada is completely unacceptable,” she said.
Within the police service, a special task force has spent the past two years trying to make inroads into the communities most affected by shootings. The Integrated Gang Prevention Task Force, launched in 2017, held 18 town halls across the city in 2019 and is working toward a report and recommendations due in the summer.
Detective Constable Ron Chhinzer, one of the task force’s officers, told The Globe he hoped to find new approaches to fighting and preventing gang violence. “I think that the solutions are going to come from within,” he said. “They’re going to come internally, not externally, from these communities, but the communities need to be empowered appropriately.”
“If we really want to minimize shootings in the city, there are many things that need to be done all at the same time,” Det. Constable Chhinzer said. “It’s not one thing in particular.”
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