Police chief wants to address 'problem with gunplay' as Toronto exceeds homicide record

Toronto has a "problem with gunplay," the city's police chief says, but the vast majority of people are safe.

Gang violence at root of record number of slayings this year, Mark Saunders says

Toronto police Chief Mark Saunders responded to a spike in gun violence after a brazen daytime shooting on Sunday brought the total number of slayings in Toronto to 90 this year. (Canadian Press)

Toronto has a "problem with gunplay," the city's police chief says, but the vast majority of people are safe.

Mark Saunders's comments come as Toronto marked its 90th homicide this year — surpassing a grisly record that stood unbroken for nearly three decades.

On Sunday, a brazen daytime shooting in Scarborough brought to the total number of slayings in Toronto this year to 90. The previous record for the most homicides in a single year was 89 set in 1991. 

In an interview with CBC Radio's Metro Morning, Saunders argued that gang violence is at the centre of a spike in gun-related killings. 

"Most of the shootings, by in large, are attributed to the street gang violence: people who have a high-risk lifestyle," he said, adding the brazenness of homicides sets this year apart from cases in 1991. 

"Street-gang subculture is something that needs to be looked at."

Listen to police Chief Mark Saunders weigh-in on gun violence amid a record-setting number of homicides:

Shooting deaths account for half of homicides

Last week, Acting Insp. Hank Idsinga of the force's homicide unit said there has been an "uptick in the number of shootings" relative to other types of slayings this year. 

While officers have seized more guns off the streets than ever before — close to 900 firearms — the "shootings keep happening," Idsinga explained.

Toronto has surpassed the record for number of homicides in a year set back in 1991. (CBC)

Police statistics show a rise in shooting deaths in 2018, accounting for more than half of all slayings so far this year. 

Last year, that number was 36, compared to 34 in the year before.

Saunders admitted it has been an "unusual" year for Toronto, attributing two mass casualty events that grabbed worldwide attention to incomprehensible violence.

Two people were killed and several others wounded in a mass shooting along Danforth Avenue on July 22. (Cole Burston/Getty Images)

Ten people were killed and 16 others injured when a van plowed into pedestrians along Yonge Street on April 23. Three months later, a mass shooting rampage along a bustling Danforth Avenue left two dead and wounded 13 others.

Meanwhile, other shootings in Toronto's public places — the entertainment district, popular downtown areas, and perhaps most shockingly, a Scarborough playground where two young sisters were wounded — raised particular community ire and made gun violence and its root causes a hot-button political issue.

Not 'new normal,' mayor vows

Mayor John Tory has endorsed a complete ban on handguns within city limits, while both the province and Ottawa have contributed new funding for youth programming aimed at providing opportunities to vulnerable young people.

"What I'd like to hope is that it's going to be a collaborative effort between all the governments," he told reporters at city hall Monday. 

Tory added that he won't accept this year's homicide total as the "new normal going forward" and that city hall is committed to reducing violent crime.   

"What we have to do is double and triple and quadruple our resolve to try and address it as best we can," he said.

Tory's plan includes investing in youth services, increasing neighbourhood resources, ensuring police's $1 billion budget remains intact, and changing laws around handguns.   

Toronto Mayor John Tory says there's 'no magic answer' to curb a spike in gun-related homicides. (Nick Kozak/Canadian Press)

Saunders echoed this sentiment in the interview, saying it will take a joint effort from the city, province and Ottawa to tackle the root causes of gun violence.

"I think, for the first time in a longtime, all levels of government understand the solution to this is not arresting your way through it," he told Metro Morning

"In order for us to look at what we need to do to fix that problem, it's going to have to be a collective effort if we're going to be successful." 

Gang dynamics are complex

Saunders said, however, gang dynamics are complex and there's no simple way to pinpoint the cause of the violence. 

Some shootings, he said, are the result of gang-on-gang warfare, or someone acting on a personal grudge. And then there are deaths of innocent bystanders that get caught in the crossfire. 

Mourners attended a candlelight vigil for slain Toronto rapper Jahvante Smart, known in the industry as Smoke Dawg. He was gunned down outside a nightclub in the city's entertainment district. (Christopher Katsarov/Canadian Press)

A wave of violence in north Etobicoke prompted Supt. Ron Taverner of 23 Division to plead for help from the public earlier this month in solving what he characterized as "vicious, horrific" crimes. 

Taverner estimated of Toronto's 363 shootings this year, almost 40 per cent occur in north Etobicoke. He said the area has a history of gang activity, turf wars and retaliation, and guns and drugs. 

'Street gang overtones' linked to homicides, Saunders says

In 1991, police told CBC Toronto that gangs, guns, drugs and the recession were to blame for the record-setting number of homicides.

"Street gang overtones, once again, led up to the exact situation that we're in today," Saunders said on Monday. 

He called for programs aimed at high risk youth as a way to combat the underlying causes of gun violence in the city. 

"You have to look at preventing young men from making the decisions that they're making," he said, noting many people who come from communities with a lot of violence feel they need a gun for protection.

A city report released in July found that youth who possess firearms often come from communities with a lot of violence and feel like they need a gun for protection. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

A city report released in July found that youth who get involved with violence and crime often face poverty, trauma, racism, a lack of positive peers and family supports, and come from underserved neighbourhoods.

The report recommended increasing young people's access to health, housing, family education, employment, mentorship, positive peers and community-based activities as a way to address the root causes of crime. 

In July, Tory committed $12-million in funding for existing city programs that are focused on keeping youth out of criminal lifestyles. In the end, city staff advised applying for more than $30 million in crime prevention funding from the federal government. 

Further, Saunders said the force also needs to "[change] the playbook" on policing by redefining frontline officers' roles in the community.

Toronto police has had a neighbourhood policing program since 2013, and currently has nearly 100 officers placed in 33 neighbourhoods to build greater trust in areas where gun violence is taking place.

This fall, the service increased police presence in eight city neighbourhoods, with the goal of identifying at-risk youth and offering a myriad of supports, such as resources within the school and justice system.

"This is the year where things are going to turn around in solving [gun violence] holistically," Saunders said.

With files CBC Radio's Metro Morning


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