Police funding an easy sell after brazen shootings

The natural reaction to a series of brazen shootings in Toronto this summer is a call for government action. But many say that policing is not the only answer.

While crime rates are down in Canada, high-profile shootings spur action

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford has secured more police funding from the province of Ontario after a July 23 meeting with Premier Dalton McGuinty to discuss a spate of recent shootings in the city. (Aaron Vincent Elkaim/Canadian Press)

In the deluge of questions posed to Toronto police at a recent town hall, one stood out for slicing to the core: a worried 10-year-old boy asking what he could do to stay safe at school.

The boy was one of 3,000 residents from the at-risk Rexdale and Jane and Finch neighbourhoods taking part in a virtual town hall held on June 26 by TAVIS, the Toronto Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy.

TAVIS coordinator Sgt. Greg Watts said most of the comments focused on what could be done, with many residents saying, "we want to see [police] in our communities, what can we do to get you in here."

A call for action is a natural reaction in a city that's seen its fair share of violent and troubling crime this summer, but many say that policing is not the only answer.

While 2012 hasn't equaled the volume of violent crime experienced during Toronto's infamous Summer of the Gun in 2005, this year has seen a number of brazen attacks in public spaces.

Two people were killed in the Eaton Centre food court on June 2, a masked gunman killed a man on a crowded Little Italy patio two weeks later, another man was shot during Canada Day fireworks and then there was the July 16 shootout at a Scarborough block party that killed two and injured 24.

The shooting at a midnight premiere of The Dark Knight Rises at an Aurora, Colo., movie theatre that killed 12 and injured dozens on July 20 shocked the continent.

"Part of the reason we are affected by [these crimes] is because they are so unusual," said University of Toronto criminologist Anthony Doob. "All involved settings that ordinary people can imagine themselves being in."

Crime rates continue downward trend

On Tuesday, Statistics Canada released a report that showed yet another drop in the overall crime rate across the country, showing a fall to the lowest level since 1972. The news was a continuation of a decades-long trajectory, but it's a trend that often falls on deaf ears and does little to calm fears.

The notion that crime is rising persists in the public imagination. A 2001 poll showed more than 80 per cent of those surveyed felt crime is either increasing or remains the same in their neighbourhoods. An Environics poll in February showed some improvement in the gap between perception and reality. About 46 per cent of respondents believed crime rates were declining.

But even then, most Canadians still want action.

An increasing majority favour crime prevention strategies, such as education, compared to those who call for more law enforcement. But according to Doob, in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy, politicians often emphasize one thing: policing.

"The focus on police is usually to say that we have to do something by sundown tonight," said Doob. "Usually, that’s not a very helpful solution to problems."

"Politicians are captured by the events of the day," he said. "Doing something today that’s going to show benefits five or 10 years from now is a hard sell for a politician."

TAVIS, the Toronto police's enforcement and community engagement strategy, got funding after the 2005 shooting of Jane Creba, 15, an innocent bystander on a busy shopping street.

As Sgt. Watts puts it, "In 2005, the city was subjected to a high amount of gun violence and as a result of that, we put together this strategy … and we were lucky enough to have the ministry fund it."

Funding crime strategies

After a high-profile meeting between Toronto Mayor Rob Ford and Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty about the recent spate of Toronto shootings, the province agreed to continue its annual $5 million funding of TAVIS.

"We are experiencing tough times financially," said Watts. "But again, that being said, I think that in today’s day and age, people are kind of looking and saying, 'OK, we have to spend money, how can we spend it in the most efficient way possible?'"

Ask Watts about TAVIS, which currently deploys 72 officers to troubled Toronto areas, and he says it's a "fantastic way to spend" money. But ask those involved in programs seeking to prevent crime, and they dismiss such rapid-fire decision-making.

"Those are reactive measures and very non-preventative," said Ricki Bekzadeh, manager of the Remix Project, a community outreach program. "That's never going to fix the problem."

The Remix Project benefitted from a similar infusion of money following the Creba shooting.

"It just so happened that there was more availability [of money] after that incident, unfortunately," said Bekzadeh, which allowed his organization to transition to "a more impactful" program.

The Remix Project morphed from a drop-in recording arts program in south Etobicoke to a city-wide arts program helping train residents in the city's priority neighbourhoods in creative industries.

Lack of discussion

What troubles criminologist Doob, however, is the lack of discussion in times of tragedy.

"Politicians respond to what's on the front page," he said. Putting more police on the street, he said, is an easy solution for a political party facing election – and a strategy that benefits from "very articulate spokespeople" and being the "most obvious fix."

"Think about how difficult it would’ve been Monday for the politicians who were sitting down at the table to come up with something that actually addressed the reasons why these young people do these terrible things. That actually is a lot harder than saying, 'I’m going to give millions of dollars to police,'" he said.

Even Sgt. Watts, who is also involved in a pilot project in Rexdale to work with community services to prevent crimes before they happen, doesn't think police should be solely responsible.

"The police tend to own a lot of things, a lot of concerns, a lot of problems," said Watts.

"Whereas if we work in conjunction with other agencies, we don’t have to own the problems, we can lead the problems, or rather, the solving of the problems."

Doob stresses there needs to be more of a conversation, because in the game of government funding, it's easy to forget a simple truism: "As soon as you spend money on one thing, you haven’t spent money on another."