Firing a gun an 'earthquake that will last forever,' police chief says of repeat offenders

Young men who fire a gun don’t understand the lifelong implications of their actions, police Chief Mark Saunders said Tuesday, noting that combatting gun violence in this city requires a two-pronged approach to deter both at-risk youths, and those who are at high risk of reoffending.

Mark Saunders says another violent year in Toronto after homicide record broken 'not part of the plan'

Toronto police Chief Mark Saunders says it's "not part of the plan" to have another violent year in the city. (CBC)

Young men who fire a gun don't understand the lifelong implications of their actions, says Toronto's police chief.

Mark Saunders noted on Tuesday that combatting gun violence in this city requires a two-pronged approach to deter both at-risk youths and those who are at high risk of reoffending.

Asked by CBC Radio's Metro Morning host Matt Galloway whether Toronto has a violent year ahead after the homicide record was broken in 2018 and nine murders already this year, Saunders said: "That's not part of the plan.

"It's not a matter of dumping this in front of the police and saying, 'here deal with it,'" he said. "There are so many other things to look at."

When trying to reduce the number of shootings and homicides in the city, Saunders said a two-pronged approach is necessary: prevention and deterrence.

Helping young men make 'the right decisions'

"It's what mechanisms do we put in place to help these young men make the right decisions?" he said.

"When you are shooting somebody at a young age, what do you see in your future, and what does society see for you in your future? So preventing that person from shooting in the first place becomes critical… But then at that back end, which is equally crucial, is that deterrent factor. There has to be a very loud signal that says that if you shoot somebody, there should be deterrent factors for that person as well as others who are thinking of going that route."

Saunders was asked specifically about the case of Naod Tsegazab, who at 22 is facing a second-degree murder charge in the death of Dean Howlett. The Whitby man was gunned down Feb. 12 in the stairwell of a Scarborough apartment.

Tsegazab was convicted as a 16-year-old in a non-fatal shooting on Sept. 2, 2012, in the Chester Le neighbourhood of Scarborough. While he was convicted as a young offender, Tsegazab was sentenced as an adult, and so his identity can be released.

It is unclear whether at the time of Tuesday's shooting, Tsegazab was out on parole or full release.

Tsegazab is also the brother of Nahom Tsegazab, who pleaded guilty to two counts of manslaughter and six counts of aggravated assault in connection with the July 2012 Danzig Street shooting that left two people dead and 23 wounded.

Saunders said Tuesday he did not know under what conditions Naod Tsegazab was out of jail. But the revolving door of crime is not unusual, Saunders said.

"This is not something that we see as one-offs. We see that on a regular basis," Saunders said. "I've said, over and over again, 90 per cent of the people we arrest are not going to stay in jail. It just doesn't work that way."

When he was a homicide detective, Saunders said he "arrested young men just like this.

"At the time, they didn't have the ability to understand the gravity of that particular action, on how that is an earthquake that will last forever."

Multiple tools needed to prevent life of violence

When he speaks of the "need to get in front of this so that they don't make that decision," it's about enlisting multiple tools — from community officers to neighbourhood programs — to steer young people away from a life of violence.

"They just don't have the tools to understand what is going to happen after, if you shoot somebody then you're in that game forever," he said. "Because whoever they shot will want to shoot them back, or their family, or their friends and this thing goes on and on and on."

But once someone decides to pull that trigger, he said, they are "now high-risk" rather than "at-risk."

"That's a different ball game. Different resources, different tools have to be put in place for that," according to Saunders. He did not elaborate on what can be done to divert someone from re-offending.

Asked whether Monday's announcement of a major drug and gun bust involving both Toronto and Ottawa police is part of the gunplay in this city, Saunders said one of the key motivators for the violence is protecting territory.

Funding for more closed-circuit cameras coming

"Controlling your territory, so that you can properly distribute your narcotics or whatever contraband it is, is an industry that is bringing in finances and you have to protect that environment at all costs," he said.

While Saunders has set aside plans to acquire one tool to combat gun violence — the Shot Spotter technology that listens for the sound of gunshots and sends a report to police — Saunders said funding for more closed-circuit cameras in areas at risk for gunplay is coming. He also unequivocally said he needs more officers.

The Toronto Police Services Board has approved his budget request for 2019, which includes the hiring of some 300 officers, in addition to civilian staff.

But he said: "Modernization is not just about people. It's about understanding what we need to do as an agency to be able to enhance community safety."

With files from Metro Morning