Alok Mukherjee was chair of the Toronto Police Services Board from 2005 to 2015. He is the author, with Tim Harper, of Excessive Force: Toronto’s Fight to Reform City Policing.
How safe do Torontonians feel from gun violence?
A recent experience has led me to believe the answer does not depend only on statistics or visible police presence in our neighbourhoods. Our sense of safety is affected significantly by the sight and sound of a gun firing in places where we least expect it.
A few days ago, around 7:30 p.m., a friend and I were in a taxi heading home from a bustling part of the city’s east end. It was a pleasant, bright evening, the street was busy with shoppers, strollers and cars, and the sidewalk patios were full.
Suddenly, as we waited at the intersection for the traffic light to turn green, a bunch of young people turned into the street from a side lane. They were running, chasing one another and shouting loudly. We couldn’t make out what they were saying – only that they sounded angry. At the end of the block, they turned into the next lane. Seconds later, we heard a loud clap.
The taxi driver exclaimed, “Oh, that was a gun!”
In moments, several police cars came rushing, with their sirens blaring and lights flashing. The police station was close by. It didn’t appear that anyone had been hurt, and there was no sign of the miscreants.
The brief episode could have had serious consequences on that busy area – not only for the person being chased, but a stray bullet could have also struck a passerby or the occupants of a vehicle or a building. I was amazed by the callousness and the brazenness of the incident.
But life went on; I wondered if people have become inured to the presence of guns in their communities.
I remember the public reaction when 15-year-old Jane Creba was the unintended victim of a shooting in downtown Toronto. It happened on Boxing Day in 2005, mere months after I was chosen chair of the Toronto Police Services Board and shortly after Bill Blair was appointed Toronto’s chief of police. Ms. Creba was out shopping with her family near the Eaton Centre at the corner of Yonge and Dundas streets, one of the city’s busiest locations.
The killing caused widespread fear and outrage both because the victim was an innocent bystander and because the shooting had occurred in the heart of the city. People became fearful about their personal safety.
Research has shown that this fear is based not necessarily on any personal experience of violence, but on the feeling that “this could happen to me too.”
Reacting to the public outcry, Toronto City Council approved the police services board’s request to increase the number of police officers. Taking advantage of provincial and federal shared-cost programs, several hundred new officers were hired over the next few years. The province also funded an anti-violence strategy, called the Toronto Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy, better known as TAVIS.
Around the same time, under the leadership of then-Toronto mayor David Miller, we launched a campaign to remove guns from our streets. It included a call for the federal government to ban handguns, to strengthen measures to stop the illegal importation of guns from the U.S. and significant investment in programs to deter young people from taking up guns.
The Ontario government of the day supported our proposals. However, the federal government turned them down. Instead, it chose to emphasize enforcement, enacting mandatory minimum sentencing for those convicted of gun violence. As for prevention, it allocated a small fund of a few million dollars to support a handful of community-based initiatives.
So, here we are today. More police officers, more enforcement, mandatory minimum sentencing and other measures have not made a dent in gun violence. In any event, these are all measures that come into play only after a gun has fallen in the wrong hands. Prevention continues to be treated as a secondary option.
The legislation passed by the current federal government to restrict assault weapons will have no effect on the circulation of handguns, and the prospect that cities will actually take up its proposed municipal handgun law looks grim. The measures proposed after the sad killing of Jane Creba are still as valid as they were then.
Will our governments show political will and act, or are they waiting for some kind of “herd immunity” that resigns the public to learn to live with gun violence like COVID-19?
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