If one more person is killed in Toronto this year, it will have been the most murderous year in the city’s history.
Toronto’s 89th homicide victim died after a shooting at Ann Arbour Road and Lovilla Boulevard in North York just after midnight on Wednesday. Police say shots were exchanged after three cars congregated on Ann Arbour Road.
Yohannes Brhanu, 22, died after he was rushed to Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre.
After nearly a month without a murder, the death marks an unsettling milestone for the city.
The last time 89 people were killed in one year in Toronto was 1991 – a record that, 27 years later, Detective Sergeant Hank Idsinga of the Toronto police homicide unit attributes to an “Asian gang war” that was being waged across the city at that time.
What’s happening today, he says, is less clear.
“You know, there’s a different dynamic out on the street. I think one of our big concerns is the neighbourhood-to-neighbourhood murders that we’re seeing – you know, people just shooting and killing the first person they see in a rival neighbourhood, whether it’s a rival gang member or not,” he said.
The brazenness of some of the shootings, at busy times in high-traffic downtown areas, has prompted calls for a clampdown on guns and gun violence.
Mayor John Tory, who was re-elected for a second term last month, stressed in his victory speech on Oct. 22 that he will be making a “renewed and very determined effort” over the next four years to tackle the violence. He has called for a ban on handguns and assault weapons, which is currently being considered by the federal government.
Jooyoung Lee, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Toronto, is quick to point out that 2018 “has been sort of an aberration year" when it comes to homicides.
Ten people were killed in a matter of minutes when a van plowed through a busy stretch of sidewalk along Yonge Street in April. And two people were killed and many more injured when a 29-year-old man opened fire on Danforth Avenue in July.
From a sociological perspective, Mr. Lee sees more value in assessing the city’s per-capita murder rate than in comparing straight annual tallies. For one thing, he says, the city’s population has grown consistently since 1991 and that needs to be taken into consideration.
“The overall [per-capita] rate is ultimately much more important in understanding … how dangerous this city is or is not becoming,” he said. “Sometimes we get lost in the absolute numbers.”
But to Det.-Sgt. Idsinga, who is in charge of the unit assigned to solve these crimes, those absolute numbers are an important reflection of lives lost.
“The bottom line is that 89 people were killed,” he said.
Bobbie McMurrich, the associate executive director at Victim Services Toronto, agrees. She dismisses the idea that mass incidents like the van attack or the Danforth shooting skew the statistics, especially as these types of events become less and less anomalous.
“It happened. It’s real. Those are real people that it affected. And for many of them, will be affected for the rest of their lives,” Ms. McMurrich said. “These are not blips. They’re people.”
She said it has been an extremely challenging year for her organization, which provides a 24/7 response to individuals or families who are affected by crime. The van attack in particular – which surged their call volume by 355 per cent – left them reeling for weeks.
“And then, just as we think we are about to get our heads above water again, the Danforth shooting happened,” she said. “And back we go into that crisis mode.”
In addition to these large-scale events, it felt to Ms. McMurrich as though not a day went by this year when someone wasn’t being shot or stabbed.
“Numbers aside, we just know from living it day to day that this is a different year,” she said. “In terms of capacity, it was like all hands on deck. Staff were working extremely long hours. And so the level of exhaustion and vicarious trauma was very, very real. We were quite concerned about everyone.”
It has been a challenging year for Toronto police’s homicide unit, too.
“If you look at the last 12 months, we have had over 100 [homicide cases],” Det.-Sgt. Idsinga said. “So that gives you an idea of the volume and amount of work that is imposed on the office.”
For example, the eight first-degree murder charges laid against Bruce McArthur this spring do not factor into the 2018 figures – and yet the cases still took up a lot of the homicide unit’s resources and time.
Of the 89 homicides so far this year – up from 65 last year and 75 in 2016 – 46 were shootings, 19 were stabbings and 24 (including the 10 from the van attack on April 23) were classified as “other.” According to the Toronto police website, 29 of these cases remain unsolved.
That the number of homicides remains in the double digits in a city of millions, Mr. Lee said, is an indication that the city is safe compared with other Canadian cities, and certainly other North American cities.
“The point is not to belittle [the significance of] any single homicide. Obviously the goal of any policy-maker, I think, should be to bring that number down until homicides basically disappear,” Mr. Lee said.
“But some of that I think gets lost in the moral panic and frenzy around ‘the latest shooting.’”