Andray Domise is a freelance writer based in Toronto.
Stop me if you’ve heard this story before.
Once the spring thaw begins to give way to roiling summer heat, the plague of gun violence makes its annual return to Toronto. A spate of shootings begins to migrate in from the outskirts of the city, involving one or two shockingly brazen incidents that grab headlines owing to the age and innocence of the victim.
Eventually the violence finds its way to the downtown core, and a shooting incident takes place in the one area of the city where it should be safe to walk the streets at any time. The mayor of Toronto, appalled at what is happening in this world-class city, makes a strong statement against the violence. He pledges to hire and deploy more police officers to hit the streets.
And throughout the process, both the police and the media point to double-digit increases in shootings, violent crime and homicides to make the case that Queen’s Park and city hall need to quit entertaining political correctness from community activists. Because ridding guns from our city’s streets is serious business, and tying officers’ hands with matters such as “carding” and “police brutality” only emboldens criminals to escalate the senseless violence even farther.
Every year, it seems, Toronto’s political and media classes manage to be almost as shocked by the resurgence of gun violence in the summer as drivers are by the sight of snow in the winter. Every year, we keep returning to the same conversation as to what can be done about it.
It isn’t as if the solutions are not known. The answers from the communities affected are often to avoid cowboy policing, and to address the roots of gun violence. These answers are backed by plenty of studies showing that, for example, funding for local community services and neighbourhood partnerships goes a long way to disincentivizing crime. Reducing gun violence is only possible when the root factors of crime itself – broken neighbourhoods, inequality of opportunity, educational gaps and so on – are meaningfully addressed.
In fact, in the aftermath of 2005’s “Summer of the Gun,” former Ontario chief justice Roy McMurtry and former MPP Alvin Curling composed a report titled Review of the Roots of Youth Violence, which stressed that repairing community relations and empowering neighbourhoods would be a key factor not only in tamping down gun violence, but in creating early-intervention strategies for young people who were at risk of heading down that path.
The answer from the police, on the other hand? Hire more police, and let them use “every tool available” to combat the problem, even when those tools often look suspiciously like racial profiling. At every opportunity when gun violence makes headlines in Toronto, retired officers as well as Toronto Police Association president Mike McCormack will be there to ominously forecast that shootouts in the streets could become the new normal, if nothing changes. And of course, there was Peel Police Chief Jennifer Evans raising the alarm last week that the surge in shootings throughout the Greater Toronto Area could be attributed to the provincial government’s disbandment of carding.
But police services across the province, even with a decade’s worth of data available to them, have yet to show that carding leads to solving crimes. Only one high-profile case has been discussed; that of the murder of nine-year-old Cecilia Zhang by Min Chen. Mr. Chen was once street-checked by Peel Police near the Credit River, where Cecilia’s body was found, which led to his eventual capture. Aside from that case, and with literally hundreds of thousands of contact cards logged in police databases through street checks, the efficacy of the defunct program is still not known to the public.
When the cyclical problem of gun violence strikes Toronto, it’s often too easy for the numbers and percentages to become abstractions, rather than individual tragedies affecting far too many families and communities across this city. If there’s to be any conversation about what can be done, it has to begin and end with those families, and with those communities. This is what Mr. McMurtry and Mr. Curling did, when soliciting academic and local help to produce the youth-violence report. It is what the United Way of Greater Toronto did, when compiling the Poverty by Postal Code report, only a few years earlier. These efforts helped lead to the creation of Toronto’s Strong Neighbourhoods Strategy 2020, which remains the most comprehensive effort to curb violence and youth poverty in the city.
On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine a more counterproductive approach than the fearmongering by the Toronto Police Association, as well as the Peel police chief. And Premier Doug Ford’s tweets, which called for meetings with Ontario’s police services, yet made no mention of meeting with affected communities, was hardly more helpful.
We already know how it plays out when gun violence is approached as a policing matter, rather than a public-health and safety matter. And we’d do well to take the best advice from our own experts, since we’ve heard this story before.