The Current

Toronto shooting: Why there are no simple explanations for acts of mass violence

Toronto's former deputy police chief Peter Sloly says the role mental health, guns and radicalization play in Canada's rising crime rates are far more nuanced than we think.

In the wake of Danforth shooting, Peter Sloly calls for holistic thinking

Toronto's former deputy police chief, Peter Sloly, said broad social overhaul is needed to tackle mounting violent crime rates. (CBC)

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Toronto's former deputy police chief feels "fear, anger, frustration" at the news of Sunday's mass shooting in his former neighbourhood of Greektown.

"I spent my first years of policing in that area," Peter Sloly, who served as deputy police chief from 2009 to 2016, told The Current's guest host Megan Williams.

The east-end shooting took the lives of a 10-year-old girl and an 18-year-old woman, just three months after Toronto suffered a van attack that killed 10 people. 

As Torontonians learn more about the mental health challenges of the 29-year-old shooter Faisal Hussain, Sloly cautioned against drawing overly simplistic conclusions to the problem of increasing violent crime in Canadian cities.

According to Statistics Canada, reports of firearm-related incidents in Canadian cities rose by seven per cent from 2016 to 2017. 

"We're too quick to just circle one particular aspect of human condition and say that's the one we need to focus on," he told Williams.

Sloly said Canada needs a more holistic approach in police strategies, and that Canadians' relationship to guns, mental health and radicalization are far more nuanced than we think. 

Mental health and gun violence

When it comes to instances of mass violence, Sloly stressed that mental health is certainly a significant factor that demands attention, but a lack of consistency between offenders makes him reluctant to assign all blame to said issue.

"There isn't a perfect profile that people can put together and say, 'Here is the cocktail that produces this type of violence,'" he said.

"If you look across the country, we've had mass shooting events from Moncton through to Montreal, here in this city ... and in every single case [the shooters] were very different people, from very different demographic backgrounds ... and had different health statuses."

'Stay Strong Toronto': A chalkboard fills up with messages of support at a parkette in Toronto's Danforth area where Sunday's mass shooting took place. (Cindy Newton Graham/Facebook)

Sloly also cautioned against placing too much stock on the role of guns.

Toronto Mayor John Tory has been firm in his stance that the Danforth shooting is evidence of a "gun problem" in his city.

But Sloly pointed to recent acts of public violence where alternative weapons have been deployed, such as in London where knife attacks are on the rise.

"We've seen explosive devices, we've seen edge weapons, we've seen vans. It's too simple again to just point to one particular source of weapon and say, 'If we banned that or we curtail that, all these incidents of mass violence will go away.'"

Sloly said our "undefended border" with the U.S., the world's largest gun manufacturer, makes firearms more readily available in Canada than in other countries.

But increasingly, guns are also coming from domestic sources — from legal gun owners having their guns stolen or distributing them illegally to the production of firearms in Canada. 

"We can't lay all this on our neighbours to the South."

A woman writes a message on a building under renovation, remembering the victims of a shooting on Danforth, Ave. in Toronto. (Mark Blinch/Canadian Press)

Holistic approach

Sloly argued that broad social overhaul is needed to tackle mounting violent crime rates, citing some successes in other locations.

"Look at the level of violence that Bogota, Colombia was experiencing in the height of the Medellin Cartel about 15 years ago. A mayor came in and pulled the entire city together," he said.

"New York City, 30 years ago, was not the bastion of public safety or good policing and now has turned around their entire city and are seeing murder rates per capita lower than here in Toronto."

"[This] requires a significant whole of society, whole of city, wholesale change of the way that you do business. It's not easy but it can be done."

Sloly praised some examples of great work being done in Canada now, such as the use of technology in Vancouver and York Region and neighbourhood police strategies in Toronto and Edmonton. But he believes a more cohesive system is needed.

"Has any one jurisdiction in any one police service managed to pull it all together and consistently do it year over year? Haven't seen that happen here yet," he said.

"We need to move away from some of the things that have not proved sustainable into new and integrated forms of service delivery."

Listen to the full discussion near the top of this page.

This segment was produced by The Current's Alison Masemann and Idella Sturino.