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I hold just the tiniest bit of pity for Toronto Police Constable Marco Ricciardi, who sounded like he just wanted to be helpful when he made international headlines for his advice at a town hall on how to prevent violence during home invasions: leave your car keys by the front door. “They’re breaking into your home to steal your car,” he said in February. “They don’t want anything else.”

This is the type of realpolitik advice that no one wants to hear, but many quietly take to heart anyway. Indeed, women don’t want to be told they should stagger their keys between their fingers when walking home alone at night – they want to be able to take a walk without worrying about getting attacked – but many fish their keys out of their purse anyway, just in case.

The difference is this type of advice is usually whispered between friends at the bar after last call, not doled out by the people whose job is to make sure citizens don’t have to take public safety into their own hands.

That’s why Constable Ricciardi’s suggestion was so remarkable: it was a close-to-explicit admission that residents are now responsible for their own safety, even in their own homes. It was also an acknowledgment that auto theft has become so ubiquitous, so clearly beyond the control of police, that everyone in Canada’s biggest city should now be considering just cutting their losses and rolling over in submission.

The Toronto Police Service issued a statement shortly after Constable Ricciardi’s suggestion went viral, saying that “while [his tip was] well meaning, there are better ways to prevent auto theft-motivated home invasions.” But the damage was done.

Had the comment been made in isolation, perhaps it wouldn’t have been so irksome to so many Canadians. But there has been a palpable frustration with police of late, based on the increasingly ornamental role police now appear to be taking in maintaining law and order.

The disorder caused by protests over the war in Gaza is the most visible example. For months, pro-Palestinian protesters have shut down busy intersections, gathered outside businesses, and rallied outside consulates – all fair game. But on more than a few occasions, these protests have veered into intimidation, with demonstrators assembling outside synagogues, Jewish community centres (in Montreal, protesters recently blocked people from accessing the front door) and in heavily Jewish neighbourhoods. Police stood by while protesters uttered threats during a demonstration inside the Toronto Eaton Centre in December, and watched as protesters physically barred would-be attendees from a Liberal fundraising dinner earlier this month. Police also failed to control the crowd that had gathered outside of the Art Gallery of Ontario just days before that, when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was scheduled to host Italy’s Giorgia Meloni. Embarrassingly, the event had to be cancelled.

This all echoes the powerlessness that police displayed during the trucker convoy in Ottawa and elsewhere back in 2022, when they completely lost control of the streets for weeks. The message to the wider public: crowds control the streets and can decide who gets access to what; the police are just there to offer the illusion of order, and perhaps to apprehend the odd protestor or counterprotester who goes especially rogue.

But it’s not just about the protests. Statistically, crime is up in big cities such as Toronto and Montreal, and there are more signs of disorder visible to those going about their business in those downtown cores. It has become normal, for example, to see open drug use or acts of violence on public transit. Auto thefts have skyrocketed; according to police, home invasions and auto theft rose 400 per cent last year. Toronto Police Chief Myron Demkiw recently said that carjackings in the city have more than doubled in 2024. And – not unexpectedly, considering the war in Gaza – reported hate crimes in Toronto have surged since Oct. 7.

The solution routinely proposed by police is a bigger budget to hire more officers since, in Toronto, the number of officers on the streets has not kept up with population growth. The Toronto police union has even released ads depicting scenes of rather frightening crimes, paired with the caption “ … an officer will be arriving in 22 minutes” – a reference to the current average response time for priority police calls. But the police budget has more than kept up with inflation, showing that increased funding doesn’t necessarily solve resourcing problems.

In terms of public perception, though, none of that really matters. If the police aren’t seen to be doing their jobs – controlling crowds, maintaining access to public spaces, apprehending car thieves instead of telling people where to leave their keys – our collective faith in one of our most important institutions crumbles. And when citizens can’t trust that police will keep them safe, they can start to take measures into their own hands.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to clarify that while Toronto police budgets have more than kept up with inflation, resourcing problems still exist.

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