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Police investigate a shooting in China Town near College Ave. and Spadina Ave. in Toronto, Ontario Sunday Jan. 31, 2016.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

After one of the worst years for gun crime in a decade, Toronto Police Service Chief Mark Saunders is promising new tactics to combat the violence that advocates of the black community charge is not getting the attention it deserves.

In a sit-down interview, Chief Saunders said the reasons behind the increased number of homicides and shootings are complex and difficult to determine, but vowed he has a strategy as he prepares to reveal a long-awaited report on how to transform and trim the police service.

"We're looking at changing the playbook a little bit," he said. "I'm not going to tell the criminal element what my plan of attack is on reducing gun violence, but I can assure you that there'll be stronger intelligence-led policing."

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Homicides reached an eight-year high in Toronto last year, with 69 people killed, 13 more than in 2015. Of them, 40 were shot to death, a jump of 53 per cent over the previous year and the highest number of gun killings in nine years. In addition to the deaths, 154 people were injured in shootings last year, the highest number since 2008.

The death toll included Rochelle Bob, a pregnant mother of two whose baby was saved by emergency cesarean section but died three weeks later; Peggy Ann Smith, a grandmother who wasn't the intended target of the bullet that killed her; as well as a disproportionate number of young black males.

Chief Saunders emphasized that increased gun violence is an issue in big cities across North America. "When you look at numbers and do comparatives with urban cities … you can see that Toronto is a safe city, by and large."

However, Margaret Parsons, executive director of the African Canadian Legal Clinic, said the problem of gun violence is so acute it should be treated as a crisis that demands a national strategy.

"It's like they're ignoring it. They're seeing … this as a black problem as opposed to a national problem as opposed to a problem that we all need to look at and address," she said. "The main victims are African Canadian. If those victims were white or any other race, there would be a bigger outcry. But our youth are disposable and that's problematic."

Ms. Parsons contrasted the response to the spate of gun violence in Toronto with the fentanyl crisis in Vancouver, noting that officials have organized meetings, resources and strategies to address the overdose epidemic. In Toronto, she said little has been done to address gun violence and other scourges that disproportionately affect the black community, including access to illegal drugs and higher unemployment rates.

Rinaldo Walcott, a University of Toronto professor and advocate for the black community, urged governments to invest in programs, from recreation to housing, that improve the lives of the city's poor black people.

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"In some ways … we have created the context that has written off whole groups of people, so then the violence becomes internal to those communities," he said. "The reality is most of us who are not in those communities are not going to be affected by that violence, so investing in communities in a range of ways is necessary for combatting that violence."

Chief Saunders, who is the city's first black police chief, also said the force is in the process of creating a new unit to deal with "surge-capacity issues," or crime flare-ups, an apparent replacement for the Toronto Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy, which was disbanded after being criticized for high rates of "carding," or street checks, especially of young black men. It was also criticized for breeding mistrust of police.

The unit would be designed to forge stronger relationships with the community, he said. "They have to understand the importance of social investment as well as enforcement and they have to be highly trained and better understand the social costs of their actions."

Any new police tactics to combat gun violence will have to comply with new rules regulating carding, the practice of stopping, questioning and documenting people not suspected of a crime. The province brought in new rules on Jan. 1 that require officers to inform people of their right to walk away and provide a written record of interactions with the public. Carding has been suspended in Toronto since 2015.

In addition, Toronto police are undergoing an overhaul intended to modernize the force while saving $100-million by 2019. The final plan of the Transformational Task Force, co-chaired by Chief Saunders, is to be released next week. Among the measures already recommended is a three-year hiring freeze the Toronto Police Association says will reduce the number of officers by 500, merging divisions and equipping officers with portable devices to reduce their need to be in their cars.

Mike McCormack, president of the Toronto Police Association, which has mounted a campaign against the cuts, argues reducing the number of police officers could lead to an increase in crime. He said said officers are already so busy responding to calls that they have little time to spend on pro-active policing, which he says is even more important given the curtailment of carding.

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"So we're saying, 'Fine, okay, as far as we're concerned, that tool is gone.' But let's put the money into police officers on the ground gathering the intelligence that we need to stem the violence because clearly there is an impact right now," he said.

Chief Saunders also promised stronger relationships with community agencies to offer young men a way out of violence and pointed to a little-known program that Toronto police, the city and social-service organizations are using to prevent crime from occurring in the first place. The strategy, which was successfully used in Prince Albert, Sask., has at its core the belief that people at risk of falling into crime can be steered away through early intervention.

"We are seeing very good positive results, which is why, since I took office, we expanded it … and we're looking at more opportunities of working with community agencies to get successful results," he said.

The program, known as FOCUS, which stands for Furthering Our Community by Uniting Services, is in use in Rexdale, north Scarborough, downtown east and downtown west. A group of police and a host of social-service providers meet every week and present cases of people referred by colleagues, including for concerns related to mental health, housing, anti-social behaviour and even recruitment by terror groups. The relevant agencies then develop a plan and within 48 hours, team members approach the person with a concrete offer of help, including housing assistance, job training and other social services.

Officials say early results are encouraging. Combined, the four groups dealt with 595 "situations of risk," either involving families or individuals, by the end of 2016. Of those served, a small number, just 10 or 15 people, have returned to the program, said Scott Mckean, the city's lead for the program. And while 63 per cent of cases were initiated by police, officers were only involved in 12 per cent of responses.

"When people were connected to the most appropriate service, their needs were met," he said.

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