Torontonians thought they had survived the “Summer of the Gun” in 2005, when the media and the law-abiding public were rightly abuzz over the seemingly insane levels of gun-violence in the streets. It appeared then to be a one-off, but if the shootings we have seen so far in the spring of 2016 are any indication of what is yet to come, Toronto may well be in for the “Summer of the Gun, Part 2”, and more.
Is this the new-norm for Canada’s largest city? I still hold out confidence that it is not, but if I am wrong yet again – what can be done to stem the tide? I wish I had the answer. I’d be filthy rich if I did.
Depending on the news source, this past Memorial Day Weekend in Chicago saw almost 60 people shot and several of them fatally. That is mind-boggling to say the least. Chicago has approximately the same population as Toronto and in that one weekend had almost as many shootings as Toronto has recorded so far in 2016. Comparatively, Toronto still remains a very safe community – in fact it is one of the safest major cities in the world to my knowledge. However that isn’t so reassuring if you’re currently living in fear as you reside, work and/or play in Hogtown.
There is no sole, over-arching solution to drug and gang violence. As long as there is a demand, there will be competition; disputes and turf-wars.
In late 2005, the province gave Toronto considerable funding to help fight gang violence. TAVIS, among other strategies, was formed as a result. But throwing money and cops at the problem isn’t the sole answer. More lawful and unbiased intelligence gathering and/or “Carding” may help, but isn’t a panacea. Tougher laws, penalties or more gun control aren’t magic-bullets. Having gang-bangers voluntarily swap their pistols for food-stamps is merely a fantasy by some. It will take a multi-faceted approach involving a number of stakeholders to truly have an impact on this dilemma. Gang violence is NOT just a policing issue.
What is the lure of a violent criminal lifestyle to young people? In his article The Lure of Gang Life, author Chris Lutes quotes one gang-banger as saying: “I joined the gang and suddenly had more money than I thought possible. I also lived in constant danger of taking a life or losing my own.” We obviously have to focus on dissuading youth if we are going to positively influence the future. Few if any old-time gangsters are going to suddenly see the light and be rehabilitated – inside or outside of prison walls.
A number of experts feel that some young people are seeking excitement; others are looking for power, prestige, protection, and a chance to make money or achieve a sense of belonging.
The British Columbia Ministry of Public Safety website lists youth gang risk factors as “negative influences in the youth’s life; limited attachment to the community; lack of connection to their cultural identity; and lack of friends or personal support”.
Educators; social service agencies; medical professionals; youth organizations; community groups; and the police – including Police School Resource Officers, must work collaboratively to identify and prevent community safety and social disorder issues that lead to or contribute to youth involvement with drugs and in gangs. There cannot be jurisdictional silos. No one stakeholder or jurisdiction should be working alone. They must share ideas, research, lessons-learned – successes and failures. That is the so-called Community Engagement or “Hub” model that so effectively merges thoughts, ideas and resources into strategies that will successfully mitigate risk factors and enhance the overall health and safety of the community.
The public at large have an important part to play as well. Witnesses need to go to police if they hear, see or suspect something regarding gang activity. Neighbours, coaches, mentors and friends of disaffected young people may see and hear things that they cannot turn a blind eye to as well.
And of course parents need to play a pivotal role – before it’s too late. Parents are less likely to proactively approach law enforcement when they believe that reporting their suspicions may result in their child going to jail. As CNN terrorism commentator Phillip Mudd once said about preventing radicalization in youth, communities need “programs, not prisons”.
Although we won’t arrest our way out of this situation, depending on the severity of the youth’s actions, criminal charges may be unavoidable. However if they truly want to clean up their act, the penalty may not involve incarceration.
It’s not easy for a parent to seek the assistance of some outside agency to try and divert one of their children from a destructive lifestyle. Nor is it simple to turn them into police, but doing so may be a lifesaver for their offspring or for an innocent member of the public. Burying a family member is a far worse alternative.
For all of that to happen however, the public must trust law enforcement, so it is critical that police services have collaborative and trusting relationships with the communities they serve. After all, they shouldn’t just police communities, they should police WITH communities. They can only earn that fragile trust one interaction with the public at a time.
Despite some police-community relationship hiccups over the past few years, I still believe that the people of Toronto largely respect and trust their police service, and so they should. I know I do.
Chris Lewis served as Commissioner of the Ontario Provincial Police from 2010 until he retired in 2014. He can be seen regularly on CTV and CP24 giving his opinion as a public safety analyst.