Five days after teams of officers raided a gang-ridden residential complex in North Etobicoke, residents there are alleging that heavy-handed and culturally insensitive police tactics have traumatized the largely Somali community.
Toronto police conducted the sweeps – focused largely on a series of apartment buildings on Dixon Road – under the auspices of Project Traveller, a year-long investigation intended to eradicate the Dixon City Bloods, a gang police say resorted to violence and murder in trafficking drugs from Windsor to Toronto and on to Alberta.
Within hours of the raids, Toronto police stationed its Somali Liaison Unit in the complex in an effort to calm residents shaken by the early-morning incursions. But during a press conference on Tuesday, some residents said they felt more victimized by the mass police action than any gangs.
"I could have lost my mother that day. I could have died that day," said 64-year-old Saida Hersi, a resident at 340 Dixon Rd. and mother of Siyadin Abdi, who is charged with multiple weapon possession and trafficking charges.
When police stormed into her house on June 13 using a stun grenade to disorient occupants inside, Ms. Abdi thought her apartment was on fire, she said. The commotion startled her 96-year-old mother, Faduma Hersi, who fell out of bed and spent two days in hospital.
As Ms. Hersi listened to her mother's cries a person she described as "a soldier" used rubber cuffs to tie her hands behind her back and push her to ground, leaving her bottom half exposed, she said. When Ms. Hersi begged the police officer to let her cover herself, she claims he kicked her in the face. She asked for her blood pressure medication and some water, and then Ms. Hersi said the police officer responded with one word: "Die!"
When asked about the incident, Toronto Police spokesman Mark Pugash said that account sounded "extremely unlikely, however there are mechanisms for this person to put forward these complaints.
"What's interesting is that the overwhelming reaction in the community is that they are, quite frankly, enormously thankful," for the increased police presence, Mr. Pugash said in an interview. "The feedback we're getting from our officers who are out there in the community is that they not only feel safer today, but they are safer today than they were last week."
He said the news conference did not include the entire community. "This was clearly a very vocal part of the community and they claim to represent the entire community, but some Somali organizations were not asked to attend," Mr. Pugash said.
Ms. Hersi claimed that during the raid, one officer asked her if she had a tape to give them.
The apartments are in the same complex where an alleged video of Mayor Rob Ford appearing to smoke crack cocaine was being held, according to tip that came through the mayor's office, a source told The Globe and Mail. When asked about the possibility the raids were linked to the alleged video of Mr. Ford, Mr. Pugash said Project Traveller was launched a year ago, while the public only became aware of the possible existence of a video last month.
Ms. Hersi and other residents said they are planning to file complaints with the Office of the Independent Review, a civilian arm's-length agency that deals with complaints against Ontario police.
Mahad Yusuf, Executive Director of Midaynta Community Services, said the community feels they are victims of Islamophobia and racial profiling.
Mr. Pugash countered that all officers receive extensive sensitivity training before joining the force.
Mr. Ford refused Tuesday to comment on Project Traveller or offer an apology to the Somali community. "No, I cannot elaborate on anything," he said. "It's obviously before the courts now and it's a police investigation."
With reports from Patrick White and Elizabeth Church