TAVIS police program failed Toronto, says community organizer

Ontario has changed the way it funds a controversial police program, prompting critics to call for a new community strategy in high-crime neighbourhoods.

Ontario says it will reduce direct funding for the 10-year-old program

The TAVIS program is staffed by 18 officers divided into four teams (CBC)

A community organizer says a provincial funding cut to the TAVIS program is a chance for Toronto to re-evaluate its community policing strategies.

Neil Price, executive director of the non-profit consulting firm Logical Outcomes, said TAVIS (Toronto Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy) is a negative force in the neighbourhoods where it operates.

"It was seen as heavy-handed — something that was sweeping up people who were going about their business in search of so-called bad guys," Price told Matt Galloway on Friday CBC Radio's Metro Morning.

Price also said police have not been able to produce evidence to support the effectiveness of the 10-year-old program, which is designed to curb gun violence in the city's high-crime neighbourhoods.

"Police have never offered any verifiable data on what TAVIS was able to accomplish," he said.

TAVIS has received criticism for increasing tension between police and residents of Toronto's high-crime neighbourhoods. Among them are concerns about an increase in carding in neighbourhoods where TAVIS is working.

Price said the reduced funding could prompt police to develop a new strategy for policing high-crime neighbourhoods. Although he is dubious about Ontario's promise to "prioritize community-based crime prevention and youth engagement."

"This is similar language that introduced TAVIS," he said. "What remains to be seen is what happens on the ground."

TAVIS may not be reduced

The change in funding doesn't necessarily mean that the four TAVIS teams of 18 officers will disappear or be reduced. It just means provincial money earmarked specifically for TAVIS is being reduced — from $5 million to $2.6 million starting in January.

Overall funding for Toronto Police will increase by $4.7 million over 2014-15 levels — meaning police can continue funding TAVIS, if they choose to do so.

Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders says the program is an integral part of the service's gun violence strategy.

"I need to put assets in place that are directly related to street gang criminality," said Saunders. "TAVIS plays the operational component of intelligence-led policing when it comes to street gangs."

Mayor John Tory did not commit to any changes to TAVIS, but he says the extra cash will give the city more flexibility in its approach.

"Now we'll have to take that money, which is an increased sum, and deal with the needs as we see fit," he said.