The Current·Q&A

More police 'not enough' to solve violence on TTC, says union boss

Toronto commuters are on edge after a recent spate of violent attacks on public transit. John Di Nino, national president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Canada, says investment is needed to solve the problem.

We need to invest in public transit not chip away at it, says John Di Nino

A grey police SUV is parked in front of a red and white streetcar with police tape on it.
Police cars surround a TTC streetcar on Spadina Ave., in Toronto on Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2023 after a stabbing incident. The president of a Canadian transit union wants to convene a national task force as violent attacks on public transit reach what he calls 'crisis levels.' (Arlyn McAdorey/The Canadian Press)

Read transcribed audio

A recent spate of violent attacks on public transit has left Toronto commuters on edge, but one union leader says the problem won't be solved by an increased police presence alone.

"We need investments in public transit — we don't need to be chipping away at it," said John Di Nino, national president of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Canada.

"Just putting police officers on the front lines is not enough," he said.

On Thursday, it was announced 80 police officers will be deployed daily across the transit network. The increase in security comes weeks after proposed TTC budget measures, which would see fare increases and lower service levels, to offset the pandemic-related drop in riders and revenue.

Over the past week, a TTC employee was shot with a BB gun; four teens were arrested for discharging replica firearms onboard a subway train; a teenage boy was stabbed on a bus and a young woman was stabbed on a streetcar; four teens were charged in connection to a swarming attack on TTC staff, while other employees were chased with a syringe. Those incidents follow numerous other attacks, some fatal, over recent months.

LISTEN | Commuters discuss the rise in violence on public transport: 

According to figures reported by the Toronto Star, the TTC reported 451 violent offences in the first half of 2022. Figures for the second half of the year have not been released, but the annual figure would be over 900 if the rate of offence remained consistent. That number is a sharp rise from the 666 offences reported in 2019, even though passenger numbers are currently a third lower, due to pandemic-related changes in work and commuter patterns. In December the ATU reported that much harassment and violence experienced by its workers goes unreported

Di Nino spoke to The Current's Matt Galloway about the problems. Here is part of their conversation.

What do you think's going on? What's behind this? 

I think it's a whole component of where we are in society today. We've just come out of a pandemic where people have been locked up.

We honestly believe there are mental health issues that are not being addressed. We see the amounts of homelessness in subway stations and in transit properties right across this country. It's a huge complexity of things that are not being addressed, and this is why ATU has called for a national task force to deal with the overall issue

WATCH | Toronto to deploy more officers on TTC amid rise in violence

Toronto to deploy more officers on TTC amid rise in violence

4 months ago
Duration 4:15
Toronto Police Chief Myron Demkiw says upwards of 80 officers will be deployed on public transit to enhance police safety after a surge of violent attacks. Read more:

What would a national task force accomplish, if the incidents of violence are as high as you're suggesting? 

Police announced yesterday increased vigilance, with police officers on transit systems, but all of those have a funding component. And I think we need to figure out what a balance is going to look like between putting more visibility out on the front lines, being able to address those individuals who are in crisis on transit systems, how we deal with the homelessness matter and how we put other best practices in place right across this country in every transit portfolio — to figure out what are the best resources we could put forward.

Just putting police officers on the front lines is not enough.

Do we know, John, whether the increase in the number of officers, whether it's police officers, whether it's transit officers, will that actually make transit any safer? 

In most cases it's going to deter those low-level incidences. You know, if someone is going to commit a serious crime, I'm not sure that they're really worried about whether there's a peace officer or a special constable on duty.

But it does act as a deterrent and it does build customer confidence in terms of safety, and … relieving them of that uneasiness of having to move through transit systems without anybody there. 

We understand that not every incident of violence is going to stop because there are police officers on transit systems across this country. 

WATCH | Taking the TTC? Here's what you need to know: 

Taking the TTC? Here's what you need to know

4 months ago
Duration 3:24
Many TTC riders are on high alert after several violent incidents in recent months. Chris Glover walks you through some tips to keep yourself safe.

There are transit users [for whom] this is their way to get around, and they rely on the transit system. So what is at stake if people don't feel that that transit system is safe? 

If people have been listening to what we have had to say over the last number of years, we have been advocating for safe, reliable, affordable and accessible transit for all Canadians. And the reason we do that is because public transit is a mobility right. It services our most vulnerable communities, our low-income communities. It takes people to and from school and work, and more importantly, those who are living with disabilities. And if there is no comfort in the transit system, then people are going to be driven away from it.

If we don't put the dollars into it and if we don't rebuild the confidence in the transit systems across this country, we are going to see a downward spiral. And we're seeing it in the city of Toronto, where they are voting to reduce service once again.

You can't just keep chipping away at it. When things are down, you have to start to rebuild, not to take things down and destroy, because that is going to have that downward spiral and a downward effect of not having that safe, reliable, affordable transit. 

Is your sense that those who make the decisions in this country — not just in Toronto, but across the country where there are transit systems that are facing these issues — do they have a sense as to that importance that you see, the place of a transit system at the heart of civil society? 

Unfortunately, I don't think they have that sense of what that really means.

They're dealing with it from a business perspective … they're crunching numbers. And we need to look beyond that. This is about mobility rights. We need investments in public transit. We don't need to be chipping away at it today.

Q&A edited for length and clarity. Audio produced by Samira Mohyeddin, Ines Colabrese and Sam Lui.

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