It is a number. A number that grew incrementally and in jumps, over days and weeks and months this year, with the stopping of each human heart, each of which belonged to someone who was loved by somebody.
With Toronto’s latest homicide, a shooting on Sunday in the West Hill neighbourhood of Scarborough, the number has become a record.
With 44 days to go in 2018, Toronto has this year seen more homicides, 90, than any other year in the city’s history.
I’ve covered crime, policing and injustices in the justice system for more than a quarter century. I’ve seen how policies intended to save lives are born from moments like this — and often result in minor
This number —should remind us how much we already know about what causes violent crime, and how to stop it.
Toronto lawyer Annamaria Enenajor stresses the importance of understanding the context of the shootings and homicides “because they do not happen in a vacuum.
“If our city is serious about tackling our rising murder” numbers, she says, “we need to resist the temptation to respond with ‘fire and fury’ empty rhetoric of being tough on offenders.”
This piece is meant to give you some context for the record number — and ways to move forward.
It draws on an in-house database of Toronto homicides, maintained by Star librarians, which dates back to 1960.
First, the number
With 47 people killed in shootings, 19 by stabbing and 24 by other means so far in 2018, the city on Sunday passed the previous record of 89 homicides, set in 1991, a year that also saw highest per capita rate of killings — 3.8 per 100,000 — of any in our records.
But that year appeared to be an outlier — the homicide rate was lower immediately before and after 1991, and most years since have been closer to the city’s long-term average of 2.4 killings per 100,000, dating back to 1976.
Only two other years have seen rate higher than 3 per 100,000: It was 3.0 in 2005, the so-called “Year of the Gun,” and two years later in 2007 it was 3.2.
It’s not yet clear if 2018 will also be an outlier: In 2017, Toronto’s per capita homicide rate was 2.2; It was 2.5 in 2016; In 2018, the city has so far maintained a homicide rate of about 3.5 per 100,000.
If that pace continues — and it may not, there are often fewer killings in colder weather — the city would see 105 killings this year.
Criminologists and sociologists who study crime trends warn against drawing conclusions based on short-term data. Based on the past 20 years of data, University of Toronto sociologist Akwasi Owusu-Bempah says “nothing signals to me that there has been an increase in either gun-related incidents or homicides.”
That’s in part because 2018 was, of course, an outlier for a different reason — Toronto this year experienced two mass killing tragedies. A van attack on citizens on Yonge St., a shooting on the Danforth. These events are thankfully rare in
Shootings are more
Reported shootings — where someone was shot at, or shot — are trending up in Toronto, according to Toronto police figures, as are firearm-related violent crimes in Canada overall.
Sixteen of the country’s 26 largest cities have seen increases in firearm-related violent crime rates since 2013, including the Toronto census metropolitan area (CMA), which had a rate of 35.7 per 100,000 in 2017, up from 17.8 in 2013.
Nearly half of the national rise in rates of firearm-related violent crime — defined as incidents in which a firearm was used or present and relevant to a crime — since 2013 are due to more reported victims in the Toronto CMA.
Yet, Hamilton, Regina, Winnipeg and Saskatoon all had higher firearm-related violent crime rates than Toronto last year, with Winnipeg highest at 58.4, per 100,000.
Despite the increase in firearm violence, Canada’s homicide rate between 2013 to 2017 stayed at or below average over the past 20 years, ranging from 1.5 to 1.8 per 100,000.
Toronto police reported that there have been 362 shooting occurrences and 492 shooting victims as of Nov. 11, up from 162 and 211, respectively, at the same time in 2014. Of 2018’s shooting victims, around 10 per cent were killed, a lower death rate than in 2014, when it was slightly more than 12 per cent.
Why is that? In part, it’s because trauma medicine is improving, saving lives that in the past would be counted in homicide rates. It means more survivors surviving what can be near-catastrophic injuries, and lasting challenges and impacts on their lives.
Still, the proportion of homicides caused by guns has gone up over time. Since 1960, the average proportion of homicides due to shootings is 37 per cent, or slightly higher than one in three, according to the Star’s database. Since 2005, the same number is 53 per
What’s behind the shootings
In 2017, the City of Toronto’s Community Crisis Response Program, which responds to shootings and other violent incidents and works with communities to focus on crisis intervention, prevention and preparation, identified four firearm violence trends: increasing access to firearms; “violation” of spaces considered safe; escalation on social media; and more demands on victim services.
Changing demographics, particularly in the population of “high-risk” of arrest age groups — from age 15 to 29 — can also be a factor in crime rates. During steady crime declines in both Canada and the United States in the 1990s, those “high-risk” populations were also declining.
What else could have been responsible for the decrease? In that decade, the U.S. increased its use of incarceration as violent crime rates fell, but Canada did not. Canada also saw a decrease in police officers per capita, and an increase in unemployment, even as violent crime rates fell.
As it happens, Toronto’s population of young people aged 15 to 29 has been growing in the two decades since the ’90s and in 2017 was the highest in 30 years, according to Statistics Canada figures.
Many of the victims and offenders of violent crime, notes University of Toronto criminology professor Scot Wortley, are “young minority males from our most socially disadvantaged neighbourhoods.”
Wortley warned in a 2008 report for the Ontario Roots of Youth Violence inquiry that Toronto, with increasing divide between rich and poor and poverty, was at a crossroads and might see the higher crime rates seen in the U.S.
“Has that trend continued? I would say ‘yes,’” says Wortley. “Toronto has become increasingly expensive and poverty, social alienation and hopelessness
Public health issue
Ask Wendy Cukier, a Ryerson University professor and president of the Coalition for Gun Control, the one thing politicians and governments should definitely be doing to have the greatest impact on addressing violent crime, and you’d be wrong to guess reducing access to firearms — although that would be No. 2, tied with intelligence-led enforcement.
“If I were ‘Queen of the World’ in trying to find out systems that would drive change, there’s no question that making sure kids have a chance to be successful is where you’d put your money,” says Cukier.
“There’s tonnes of evidence that early childhood intervention and supporting families, all those kind of things, can have a real impact.”
Treating violence and gun violence as a public health issue — a disease like any other — provides the best approach, says Cukier, as well as a growing chorus of other experts.
The violence — and all that comes with it, including fear and PTSD — disproportionately impacts poorer, racialized communities, places where there are fewer opportunities, strained relationships with police, fewer services, higher rates of unemployment, and young people vulnerable to the allure of gangs — and guns.
In a February report to the Toronto Board of Health, Toronto District School Board Trustee Chris Glover and Bobbak Makooie argued that the growing gap between rich and poor in Toronto may mean more violent crime may become a new
Rather than responding to each crisis, the response to violent crime requires a “major shift in the economic trend and a radically different approach to addressing community violence,” concluded Glover and Makooie.
The policing piece
Despite the national increase in violent firearm crimes, some — including media pundits, a Toronto police sergeant and a failed white nationalist mayoral candidate — have cited the Toronto Police Service’s 2015 cessation of the controversial practice of carding, the police practice of stopping, questioning and documenting citizens in non-criminal encounters, and the 2017 mothballing of the also controversial Toronto Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy (TAVIS) as prime reasons for the violence. Outgoing Peel Regional Police Chief Jennifer Evans has also claimed new provincial carding regulations have “empowered” criminals.
Let’s look at what was happening, and when.
In 2007, a year after TAVIS was introduced, Toronto’s homicide rate spiked to its second highest level since 1991. It was above average the next
Carding was suspended in 2015, but carding levels had already plummeted in the summer of 2013 when police were asked to hand out receipts to the people they stopped. Despite this, from 2013 to 2015 Toronto’s homicide rates were among the lowest in the past 30 years, hovering slightly above 2 per 100,000. They rose somewhat to a still-below-average 2.2 in 2017, before spiking this year.
New York City saw predictions that violent crime would spike after it ended the similar practice of stop and frisk. That didn’t happen, and studies have found no apparent correlation between the two.
Both carding and TAVIS produced racially-skewed outcomes and increased levels of public mistrust, and not even the Toronto police union supports their return. But there is
Toronto police also recently expanded its neighbourhood officer program for a minimum two-year period. Unlike TAVIS, which sent teams of officers flooding areas of the city they were not familiar with, the neighbourhood officer program is a throwback to the days when officers got to know the people they police by walking the beat.
“We hope it will lead to interventions rather than apprehensions,” Deputy Chief Peter Yuen told the Star earlier this year. “This is an investment piece.”
Why ‘tough on crime’ is not the answer
“Tough on crime” policies — imposing tougher conditions and mandatory minimum sentences, which send more people to jail for longer periods — may be politically and publicly popular but have proven to be costly and ineffective at making communities safer.
Federal governments of all political stripes in Canada have gone down this path, to varying degree.
A 2015 study by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives found tough on crime measures imposed by the Stephen Harper government had “the opposite effect of setting the community up for danger by keeping people in prison longer without effective programming and by dismantling transitional supports that assist with community reintegration.”
And yet, moral panics — often sparked by rare, horrific crimes or a homicide number like this year’s — have historically led to more “tough on crime” stances and policies that lean heavily toward enforcement.
Following the mass shooting on the Danforth, city council also approved a five-year, $44 million plan to combat gun violence, which relies on provincial and federal funds. In 2018, $7.4 million was earmarked for stepped-up enforcement and new CCTV cameras, while just over $1 million was to go to community initiatives. In other words, a small fraction of the funds for enforcement.
And the Star’s archives are littered with examples of short-term funding announcements for community programs that lapse when the money runs out.
In 2008, the Youth Employment Local Leadership program in Scarborough shuttered when government funding timed out. Prevention Intervention Toronto, a gang prevention program, saw its funding come to an end in 2013, despite calls from the city to keep it running. And this past August, it was Scarborough gang prevention program Taking Action to Achieve Growth Success that came to its end of a funding cycle.
The programs die. Only to be reintroduced in some other form. It’s a tragic version of the movie Groundhog Day.
We need more early, smart investments
It’s been said, pay now or pay later, and with violent crime and its financial and other impacts on society, research has shown the later costs are far greater than the costs of investments in proven early supports and interventions that improve and save lives.
Of the excellent programs that do just that, Pathways to Education — born out of Toronto’s Regent Park in 2001 and now helping thousands of young people in eight provinces — shines as an example of how supporting young people living in low-income areas through their high school years delivers results.
About 40 per cent of its funding comes from corporations, foundations and individuals, and the remainder from provincial and federal governments. Ottawa recently announced secure funding for another four years as part of its poverty reduction strategy.
In other words, fairly stable funding.
“What the real issue for us is, is demand,” says Pathways CEO Sue Gillespie. As of September, there are about 6,000 young people enrolled in the program across Canada but “probably 30,000 students, easily, that could benefit from a program like this,” says Gillespie.
According to independent reviews, the program improves graduation rates and entries into post-secondary education. Although it’s difficult to measure the impact of violent crime, it no doubt has an effect — school suspensions and dropout rates are known factors in youth crime.
“It’s about development, and it’s about how young people develop and understanding when your opportunities are, and we know that when students transition into high school, there is a lot going on,” says Gillespie.
It’s essential, she says, to be aware of critical points in young lives and “make sure all the supports are available ... so that when they’re hitting up against some roadblocks, for whatever reason, or they just can’t imagine a future for themselves, it’s important to have those supports there like Pathways.
“It’s the timing, and being there early ... and really important to take that community approach.”
With data analysis by Andrew Bailey
Jim Rankin is a reporter based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @Jleerankin