Toronto police chief discusses efforts to address gun violence, responds to community concerns
Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders says the service will use new provincial funding to support “intelligence-led” initiatives as officers continue to combat the gun and gang violence of recent months.
“It is to be surgical, it is to be intelligence-led, and by looking at what tools in today’s environment can assist in the reduction of the gun violence that is taking place in this city,” Saunders told Global News in a wide-ranging interview on Thursday.
On Thursday morning, the Ontario government said it will spend spend $18 million to provide additional digital, investigative and analytical tools to Toronto police and $7.6 million for “legal SWAT teams” to be placed at each of the city’s six provincial courthouses dedicated to prosecuting gun crime cases.
“I like the fact that on the other end of it as well, it looks at the other aspect and it looks at strengthening the courthouses,” Saunders said while praising the announcement.
“The tools are there to have a much more robust focus on those people that I feel are in the higher stratosphere when it comes to violent activity in the city — that’s number one. But also number two, looking at the deterrent factor when it comes to bail, and of course, what goes on in the courtroom and listening to the community … I think the community has to have a say in the courthouse.”
WATCH: Toronto police to use new provincial money to address gun violence issues
Both Premier Doug Ford and Saunders said the funding won’t be used for community policing programs such as the controversial anti-gang squad called TAVIS, which was set up in 2006 and disbanded in 2017. They also ruled out the return of the practice of conducting random street checks, also referred to as “carding.”
“As we move forward, and with the comprehensive training that we’ve put in place and with understanding the role that we play in communities, I think that we’ll get it right. I think that TAVIS did some things that were very, very good and it also promoted some conversation,” Saunders said.
“The expectations of the public have changed. The perception of what value is when it comes to law enforcement right across the country has changed. And if we’re going to get it right, it is by listening to the members of the community and by working with strengthening the relationships and partnerships and figuring out what we can do collectively to look after those that are behaving inappropriately.”
WATCH: New provincial funding won’t be used for programs like TAVIS, Saunders says
In 2017, the Ontario government introduced new regulations on “carding.” Police are required to tell people they have a right not to talk with them, and refusing to co-operate or walking away cannot then be used as reasons to compel information. Street checks started coming under intense scrutiny several years ago amid data showing officers were disproportionately stopping black and other racialized people. For their part, police argued they simply go where the crime is, and that stopping people at random, asking for identification, and recording the information is useful.
Saunders said the service has worked on implementing enhanced officer training on bias using people who have lived experiences in order to curb the random checks. But he said the approach is different when it comes to suspected “criminal entities.”
“To randomly stop is inappropriate. I have two black boys and I don’t want them to be stopped randomly and I have a concern with that because if we’re going to stop people because of how they look or where they live, that is an issue,” Saunders said.
“It’s a different script when my officers know where the criminal entities are within that specific neighbourhood and they’re stopping them, and they’re speaking with them, which is a focus I have endorsed right from the start and I continue to endorse that.
“The vast majority of community members want their community safe. The vast majority of community members want police in their neighbourhoods, but they want them to be there to make sure they know what their roles and responsibilities are.”
Calls for stricter bail conditions, handgun sales ban
Mayor John Tory wrote a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Friday asking the federal government to help the city address gun violence, to strengthen bail conditions for repeat offenders, as well as to implement a ban on the sale of handguns in Toronto, a move city council also called for.
Toronto city council voted last month to spend millions on additional CCTV cameras in different parts of Toronto, implementation of the ShotSpotter program in a five-square-mile area of the city, Toronto police overtime costs as a part of the gun violence reduction plan, and community-based violence prevention and response initiatives.
WATCH: Mark Saunders reacts to call for stricter bail conditions
When asked about tightening up bail conditions, Saunders said that will help but it won’t be the only solution.
“There have to be equal investments from the start to the finish and when we look at bail and what is happening there with some of the issues and some for the concerns, it’s not about bail, lock them up and throw away the key. I’ve said clearly 90 per cent of the people incarcerated are going back into the community again and in some cases, the community doesn’t necessarily like the product that is coming back,” he said, adding a “one size fits all” approach can’t be used.
“There are people right now that belong in jail, right now in this moment they should be in jail because they are shooting people. They are not going to stop shooting people. Now if they’re incarcerated, there is an opportunity for them to change, maybe they won’t. … There are different motivators and drivers as to why people are shooting other people and if we collectively invest properly from start to finish we’ll get it right.”
Saunders was asked about concerns raised on strengthening bail conditions as it relates to how it could infringe on an accused person’s rights. Saunders said there needs to be a “deterrent factor” when it comes to violent acts.
“I think that you’re in a different stratosphere when you shoot someone else in the face, period. There is a difference between a shoplifter or a fraud and someone who is going to shoot somebody with complete disregard in a city of 2.8 million people,” he said.
“We have to look at the reality and that the deterrent factor when you incarcerate somebody it’s only for that segment of time — that person is coming back. And so we all have to sit across the table collectively and figure out what is the best plan … so that we get it right.”
With respect to a handgun ban, Saunders said anything that deters a person who wants to shoot someone else is “good and healthy” but he wouldn’t respond to that specific proposal.
“Finding that balance, I will let the politicians wrestle that one out. My responsibility is to the safety of the men and women that are out there doing an excellent job, by the way, each and every day, and also to keep the community safe to the best of my ability,” Saunders said.
“I know that if I’m going to get it right, I have to have a strong relationship with the community. The community, they are the eyes and ears, and they are going to tell us things that we don’t have the opportunity of knowing.”
Saunders responds to poll on gun violence concerns
Amid several high profile shooting incidents, including the Danforth shooting on July 22 that left two people dead and 13 injured, 81 per cent of Toronto residents surveyed believe there is a serious gun problem in the city, according to recent data from an Ipsos poll conducted exclusively for Global News.
There were 30 fatal shootings and 241 shooting incidents between Jan. 1 and late Sunday, according to the most recent Toronto police shooting statistics. During that same period in 2017, 23 people were killed by guns and there were 229 incidents.
When asked if he feels the handgun issue has been blown out of proportion, Saunders said it’s always “very serious” when someone uses a gun and once again highlighted that Toronto is safer compared to many other urban centres.
“I’ve always looked at what are the ways in which we can reduce that, or eliminate that, if possible. Taking it overall and not ignoring what the public feels is also equally important,” he said.
“I can rhyme off stats and talk to you about the fact that this is the fourth largest urban city in North America. When you compare our city and our numbers and our population and our violence, especially when it comes to firearms, we are noticeably lower than other urban cities. But the experience that we’re living here in Toronto isn’t referenced to that and I can appreciate that.”
The Ipsos poll also found 55 per cent of Toronto residents agree they are afraid of falling victim to gun violence. Saunders was asked if the average person in Toronto should feel worried amid an increase in shootings.
WATCH: Chief Saunders responds to poll numbers showing majority of Toronto residents fearful of being shot. Mark Carcasole reports.
“When we look at our numbers, the vast majority of people that are shot are people that have a high-risk lifestyle. If you have a high-risk lifestyle, then your numbers do go up and that is a problem and a concern because people are getting shot and people are dying,” he said.
“The vast majority of people who do not have a high-risk lifestyle, the numbers clearly, and I mean clearly, show that the odds of you being involved in being shot are extremely low. So I don’t take great comfort in that, because as we’ve said before, the perception is something that has to be addressed. We have to work collectively in messaging and making people understand what the real numbers are.”
Saunders said there are parts of the city experiencing “an inordinately higher number” of shooting incidents, something he said he and others continue to work at addressing.
“We need to collectively figure out what we can do to reduce that — not just the enforcement piece, but looking at other streams which I have spoken about in the past and looking at what tools are in play and what investments are in play from the front end so that our members of our communities have an understanding of making better choices when it comes to using a firearm to answer questions,” Saunders said.
“When it comes to how we do business, we have to change the playbook and we have changed the playbook. The men and women are a lot more sensitive to understanding the social cost with the decisions that we make as law enforcement — our training has shifted towards understanding that.”
— With files from Katherine Aylesworth, Jessica Patton and David Shum
© 2018 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.