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Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair on gangs and guns

William Blair, Toronto's Chief of Police

Toronto's top cop, Chief Bill Blair, has declared a new front this summer in his force's war on gangs in the city.

In what's otherwise been a year of record lows in Toronto crime rates, the new epicentre of gang activity is 12 Division, the region bordered roughly by Lawrence Avenue, Caledonia Road, Dundas Street West and the Humber River. This tiny swath has had nine homicides so far this year, up from four in 2008 - a number that at the time was considered high. A 10th homicide, 18-year-old Jarvis St. Remy, occurred just over 12 Division's border, bringing the neighbourhood total to 10.

Superintendent Brody Smollet, head of 12 Division, calls it "unheard of." The 10 deaths are one-third of Toronto's total, and twice the number of nearby Jane-Finch, which often earns the distinction of the city's most violent area. Half of the ten killings are unsolved.

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A Globe and Mail investigation has revealed that police have linked six of those murders to two unsophisticated local gangs, the Gatorz or Five Point Generalz.

Toronto police conducted a gang and drug sweep, Project Spring Clean, which involved the arrests of 120 people and dismantling of 20 grow-ops. With the help of temporary provincial funding, Chief Blair has also brought in 32 new officers to the division, borrowed from other police stations as part of his Toronto Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy (TAVIS) initiative.

As a result, the violence has subsided. There hasn't been a homicide in two months.

But those officers are leaving in September. And many of the people they arrested, including one suspected top gang member, are awaiting a bail hearing and could be released. The prospect has left residents wondering if police have saved the former City of York or if, come fall, the gangs will be back.

So what can be done about the burgeoning problem of gangs and guns - not just in this area but in Toronto as a whole? And what do Toronto's problems suggest about problems and potential solutions in other parts of the country.

Earlier today, Chief Blair took your questions on gangs, the strike and the Tamil protests earlier this year. His answers appear in the conversation below.

Chief Blair was appointed chief of the Toronto Police Service on April 26, 2005. The Toronto Police Service employs more than 5,500 police officers and 2,000 civilian employees, the largest municipal police service in Canada and one of the largest in North America.

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Chief Blair started his 30-year policing career as a beat officer in downtown Toronto and continued with assignments in drug enforcement, organized crime units, and major criminal investigations. His next postings included divisional commander, community policing programs, and detective operations, responsible for all specialized investigative units including the homicide squad, hold up squad, sex crimes unit, fraud squad, forensic identifications services, intelligence services, and organized crime enforcement, including the guns and gangs unit, and the repeat offender program.

As Toronto's Chief of Police, he oversaw the development of the TAVIS initiative. Rapid response teams are deployed to at-risk neighbourhoods to enhance enforcement and support local policing initiatives while promoting the role of community response units and the "neighbourhood police officer."

Chief Blair holds a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Toronto with dual disciplines of economics and criminology (1981) and a certificate in law enforcement administration from the University of Toronto (1983). He is a graduate of the Federal Bureau of Investigation national academy (1990) and the police leadership program from the University of Toronto, Rotman School of Business Management (2002) and National Executive Institute (2006).

Earlier this year, he signed on for another five-years as chief, becoming Toronto's first top cop in three decades to be given a second term.

Editor's Note: editors read and allowed or rejected each question. In some cases, questions were edited for length or clarity. We will not publish questions that include personal attacks on participants in these discussions, that make false or unsubstantiated allegations, that purport to quote people or reports where the purported quote or fact cannot be easily verified, or questions that include vulgar language or libellous statements. Preference was given to readers who submitted questions using their full name and home town, rather than a pseudonym.

Josh Wingrove: Thank you for joining us, Chief Blair. This year has been a unique one for Toronto. As you've told community meetings and reporters, the city has seen a significant drop in major crime rates this year. Until the shooting of an 18-year-old over the weekend, we hadn't had a gun homicide in about 10 weeks. And yet we do still see flare-ups in certain communities, such as 12 Division earlier this year. Can you tell us a little about where we're making progress, and what the men and women of the Toronto Police Service have done in the communities that have seen elevated crime rates this year?

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Chief Bill Blair: We have actually had fairly significant drops in the major crime index over each of the past four years. I think this has been the result of many things, and not all of them have been done by the police. We have seen a concerted effort in nearly every neighbourhood to get more active in Community safety. We are getting a lot of help from residents, local businesses, schools, community associations, community centres and from the City's youth. We have also engaged with our partners in Public Housing, Public Transit and in the private security sector. All of this is making a difference.

The biggest change in policing has been a renewed emphasis on the Neighbourhood cop. Over the past four years, we have deployed nearly 500 addition officers, in uniform, throughout neighbourhoods across the City of Toronto.

We have placed particular emphasis on building effective relationships with the people who live and work in some of the most vulnerable areas of the city. We are gathering information more effectively and using it more strategically to make sure we are getting the best return on the use of our people and our resources. The best measure of that return is a reduction of crime and victimization.

I believe that if the police in a neighbourhood know the people that they are there to serve, and if the people in that neighbourhood know and trust their police officers, together we can make our communities safer. Places where the police and the public work together are lousy places to sell drugs, carry a gun, victimize innocent people and lure young people into a life of criminality.

In addition, we have been able to deploy additional resources in the form of Rapid Response Teams and our Focused Neighbourhood Deployment Initiative. This allows us to strategically and rapidly deploy dozens of additional police officers to any area of the city that is experiencing violence or the threat of violence. All of this is part of our Toronto Anti Violence Intervention Strategy (TAVIS). It includes important work by our Drug Squad, Guns and Gangs Unit, and Intelligence Services.

There is ample evidence that this strategy works. We have dismantled many of the worst criminal gangs, and we have made our neighbourhoods safer.

Brian Dias: Chief Blair, thank you for your dedicated public service. The most severe police measure on the books is arrest and the most severe legal penalty is incarceration (and in certain cases, deportation). I suggest that, until these measures increase in both frequency and severity, the public can never be certain whether we need new laws on the books to deal with this problem. As it stands today, neither arrest nor incarceration serve as any meaningful deterrent to gang activity. The gangs revel in the attention and community status that these measures provide, in the forms of street "cred" and, to a degree, a form of martyrdom. Do you, based on the above, feel that the police should be given greater latitude in reasons to arrest gang members, and do you feel the need for stricter punishments to be meted out by the Courts for gang-related offences?

Chief Bill Blair: Canada is a country governed by the rule of law. While I know too well that some in our society have no respect for those laws, the rest of us should not be robbed of our fundamental rights and freedoms because of the actions of a few.

It often appears that criminals do not fear the consequences of our Justice system. There are many who are still engaged in dangerous criminal activity after many arrests, dozens of convictions and even lengthy periods of incarceration. We can not afford to give up and thrown in the towel.

We will continue to arrest them and put them before the courts. We will continue to convict them, and even if they can never be rehabilitated, there is an irrefutable logic in incarcerating such people in order to protect the rest of us from their criminality.

We have seen a greater awareness among the judiciary to play a more active role in protecting the public from such individuals. We have new legislation that creates greater consequences. The police will continue to do our best to reduce victimization and to prevent crime, and the public must play an active role in addressing the causes of crime. We must also not lose sight of the fact that we live in one of the safest large cities in North America.

[Editor's note: Top Toronto Police officers often compare their city with Chicago, which has a city population comparable to Toronto's. Last year, Chicago had more than 500 homicides, while Toronto had 70.]

Hunter Coblentz: Concerning [Toronto Mayor David Miller's]proposed ban on handguns and considering that this will be consequential only to owners of registered firearms, will this proposed ban truly be effective since the majority of shootings in Toronto involve illegal, unregistered firearms?

Chief Bill Blair: About 30% of all crime handguns that we seize from criminals have been stolen or otherwise diverted from legal gun owners. Legal gun owners are not dangerous but their guns certainly become dangerous when they get into the hands of criminals. My officers have to take these loaded firearms off of those criminals every day. I support any measure that will make it harder for criminals to get guns.

We are also encountering many issues with the failure of legal gun owners to adequately secure their weapons. Gun ownership is not just a right, it comes with a legal responsibility to secure these weapons against theft or misuse.

We are working hard to stop guns coming into Canada. We need to also ensure that the ones that are here don't get into hands of criminals.

Mark S. Noel: I believe that the gun registry has failed to save one life and in fact reduces women's options to defend themselves from rape and murder. Do you agree that spending billions to harass law-abiding citizens does nothing to reduce criminal gun violence?

Chief Bill Blair: With respect to the gun registry, you are misinformed. The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, and the Canadian Police Association have voiced their strong support for the Gun Registry precisely because it is an important source of information for public and police officer safety. The police in Canada use it thousands of times each day. It helps us keep our people safe.

Filling out a form does not limit anyone's ability to be safe, and it hardly constitutes harassment.

You are also misinformed about the cost of the registry. Although there was certainly concern about its initial cost, I am now advised that it cost about $3 million a year to administer. This is money well spent to make our communities safer for everyone.

[Editor's note: Last year, statistics provided to The Canadian Press by the RCMP showed actual and projected operating costs for gun-registration programs at $35.9-million over three fiscal years starting in 2006.]

Robert Turner: Greetings Chief! I wonder if you would be so kind as to answer the following query. In looking at the map Violence in 12 Division, I noticed that out of 12 cases, only four cases have resulted in charges being laid. Is a 1/3 ratio of charges being made in a grouping of 12 murders, a result typically to be expected in resolving these types of criminal acts? If so, can anything be done to improve the odds of justice being rendered to the victims and their families? Thank you.

Chief Bill Blair: Unfortunately, some of the murders that have taken place will take longer to solve than others. In cases where there is little physical evidence or where there are no witnesses or where the witnesses are reluctant to come forward, we must gather the evidence to bring perpetrators to justice in more time consuming, and labour intensive ways. Many gang shootings have few witnesses. We often solve these cases by conducting investigations into the activities of the gangs. This has encouraged some to cooperate and has helped us uncover the evidence we need to solve and prosecute these crimes. It takes time but we never give up on any case, and in time, most will be solved.

Ian Park: The legal system requires that all of your officers be godlike (i.e. perfect in all of their functions at all times when dealing with suspected perpetrators), at all times. Any mistake will let a known criminal walk. So how do we as a people deal with this asinine concept?

Chief Bill Blair: The Supreme Court of Canada recently articulated a clearer set of guidelines for the conduct of police investigations and for those circumstance where we stop and talk to a person that is possibly involved in criminal activity. This will help.

Police officers have to make instant decisions, under very stressful circumstances, based on an increasingly complex legal framework. Their decisions are then examined and debated in minute detail years after the fact in the safety of a court room. I think it is a testament to their character and the quality of their training that they get it right in the overwhelming majority of cases.

In cases where the officer may have made a minor mistake, the Courts are increasingly weighing the value of the evidence before automatically excluding it. I think this makes sense to most Canadians.

We expect much of our police officers. They must always act in the public interest and according to the rule of law. We cannot do our jobs if the public does not trust that we will do the right thing. Determining the right way to do the right thing is a challenge each officer faces every day, but the guidance of the Supreme Court will help us get it right.

[Editor's note: The Globe's Kirk Makin published an article Saturday on the increasing willingness of courts to use tainted evidence to secure convictions.]

Bruce Groves: When will the Toronto Police Service start enforcing with law with respect to the CUPE strikers? It's clear that this has not been the case to date.

Chief Bill Blair: On the contrary, the police have been following the rule of law. It is not the role of the police to intervene into a civil matter. The criminal law is quite explicit in excluding certain conduct from criminal sanction during a lawful strike.

This does not mean that picketers can assault people or damage property, but it does give them certain rights regarding a lawful picket at sites related to their employment.

The role of the police is to keep the peace and ensure that the law is being adhered to. Where the actions on a picket line infringe on the rights of the employer or of other citizens, the appropriate remedy is through civil injunction. The police can help enforce a legal injunction but we do not have the power to impose one.

The Police have Industrial Liaison officers who attend every picket site in order to negotiate strike protocols with the Strike Captains. When the picketers do not conform to the established protocols, that fact can enable the City or other affected person to obtain an injunction. This has occurred several times.

I appreciate the frustration that Torontonians are feeling. The strike has not merely been inconvenient, but has had an impact on the quality of life in all of our neighbourhoods.

The police will continue to keep the peace and work to maintain respect and civility during this strike.

[Editor's note: The City has won two injunctions against the unions since the strike began June 22, including one that prevents them from blocking private Wasteco trucks for more than five minutes. Mayor David Miller has said he won't "include or exclude" the possibility of pursuing a similar injunction on delaying private citizens at temporary dump sites.]

Suzanne Creighton: Hi Chief Blair. I study crime and law at university. Would you say it's fair that simply having a larger number of police does not resolve the overall problem of crime? If more police mean that the area has more surveillance, therefore bringing people into the system, isn't that a narrow approach or even a temporary band-aid?

Shouldn't there be funding to genuinely help prevent crime through housing and social programs? What do you really think? I mean, right now the government and the public think the police are the only answer. Thank you.

Chief Bill Blair: The Police are not the only answer, but we are part of the solution.

The presence of the Police, particularly when those officers are able to connect with the people who live our most vulnerable neighbourhoods, can deter crime. It can create an environment where people aren't afraid to use public spaces. It can empower people to get involved with their neighbours, to get involved in community-building activities and to take some responsibility for their own safety.

We don't measure the success of our work by how many people we bring into the system. The more effective measure is how many crimes are prevented, how many fewer people are victimized. Ultimately, the best measure will be in the better choices that young people make, the opportunities that they are given to realize their full potential. It is measured by how safe people feel and whether they can live their lives in peace and in dignity.

These things cannot be achieved where violence is prevalent and where people live in fear. We need to deal effectively with those that would victimize others, but we must also work hard to support all of the good people that need our help. This requires that we work in partnership with schools, youth workers, community service organizations, the business sector and will other government agencies. It requires that we build a respectful and trusting relationship with all of the people that we serve.

It most importantly requires that we help young people realize their full potential, and engage with them to make our communities safe and livable places.

[Editor's note: Today's Globe and Mail included a look at some of the people working in the community, including those trying to give youth other options.]

Tom Beshoff: Toronto police did nothing during the illegal Tamil protest. And they're doing nothing while strikers are breaking the law in blocking transfer stations. Why?

Chief Bill Blair: Some people who claim to be advocating for the rule of law frequently just mean that they want the law to be used to advance their interest. It doesn't work that way.

During the Tamil demonstrations, Torontonians had to put up with the inconvenience of minor traffic disruptions and the noise of the demonstrators. There was no threat to public safety. No one was being hurt and no property was being damaged. Some relatively minor bylaws were being broken, but none of them could possible justify the use of force advocated by some. Our first job is public safety and the use of force in such circumstances would have created a more dangerous situation.

We live in a democratic society. All Canadians enjoy basic fundamental freedoms and it is a responsibility of the police to protect and defend those freedoms in our society. This requires a careful balancing of competing values and opinions, but in the end public safety must prevail.

I think that the best measure of the effectiveness of our response is the fact that we managed the largest demonstrations of their kind, without injury or damage. The roads were blocked for less time than occurs each week during the summer construction and festival season, and the rights of all Canadians were respected.

Josh Wingrove: I'm afraid that brings our time to an end. Thank you for your time, Chief Blair. This has been an excellent opportunity to reach out to Globe and Mail readers, and the people of Toronto, about the issues facing the community. Any last words?

Chief Bill Blair: I am grateful for the opportunity to answer your readers' questions and to explain some of the challenges that we face. The police are most effective when we can engage with the people that we serve. Public safety is really a shared responsibility.

It is also helpful to know what people are thinking about and the concerns that they have. We will continue to do our best to keep people informed and involved with our efforts to keep Toronto safe. Thanks for facilitating the dialogue.

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