Residents in a marginalized community in Toronto’s northwest say they feel a different kind of growing tension with police in recent weeks amid anti-racism protests.
Anita Boadu has lived in the Jane and Finch area since 1994, where she says there has been plenty of gang and gun violence over the years. Now, she believes the mistrust of police in her neighbourhood has also swelled — in the wake of the death of George Floyd, a Black man, at the hands of a white police officer in Minneapolis, and the growing Black Lives Matter movement around the world.
“I would say there’s a lot of trust lost,” Boadu said.
“Yesterday, my son’s father came over to visit and I saw a cop passing by on a bike and my first instinct was to jump up and go to the door and make sure he was okay or that nothing was going to happen to him. I don’t think that’s a feeling I should have.”
Boadu, a Black woman, believes the instances of violence between officers and Black people, seen south of the border, has caused more cracks in an already fragile relationship between Toronto Police Service’s 31 Division officers and the Driftwood Avenue residents.
“It’s scary, I’m not going to lie to you. It’s something that’s got a lot of people looking over their shoulders a lot more now. You’re always calling your significant other or your kids and asking if they’re okay.”
Const. Leo Addo, a Black Toronto police officer originally from Ghana, says members of 31 Division know it’s more important now than ever to maintain positive ties with community members while out on patrol, and that they are working to overcome the challenges.
“I would definitely say it’s a challenging time to be a cop right now,” said Addo. “Things have really changed a lot.”
He says police officers are being watched carefully, and that the two sides need to continue conversations to understand each other better.
“We really have to keep talking. At the end of the day, I’m also a human – so I go home to family and friends. And when I put on this uniform, I have a responsibility. I think really explaining to the public, why we do what we do, is a first step.
“That’s something that we’re working on, is that community trust,” said Sgt. David Haynes, who oversees the division’s community policing unit. “It takes years and years and years to build and seconds to destroy.”
“I know a lot of officers are hesitant when they go out on the road to deal with things because they don’t want to end up on YouTube, they don’t want to end up the next name in the news, so that’s kind of frustrating — but at the same time the community needs us and that overshadows any personal thing that we may have.”
Part of the answer in regaining that trust, the officers feel, is through their ongoing efforts in the Neighbourhood Community Officer Program.
Const. Santizo is from the Jane and Finch area, which has one of the highest violent crime rates in the city.
In 2019, the area’s police division was tied with the second highest number of homicides at eight — one shy of its neighbouring 12 Division to the south, which had nine homicides that year.
Santizo said there used to be a much greater fear of police where he grew up, and he works every day to eliminate it.
Now he patrols his old neighbourhoods, trying to create positive and lasting interactions with community members.
“It’s so when they meet the police, it’s not the police in general — but there are faces and names attached to it,” he said.
“What we’ve been through in the last 2-3 weeks, it’s really devastating,” said Black community member Claudine Caine, recalling instances of anti-Black racism in the United States and Canada.
She said officers walk through her Driftwood neighbourhood often and knowing some of them on a first name basis really helps in eliminating a fear of police.
“They give away bikes, they help with a lot of things. They come, they talk to the people. That’s what we need, we need police officers to come and talk to us.”
Officers say their hope is that the trust between the community members will continue to grow through seeing officers engaging in community interactions outside of just responding to calls.
“We try to go in and make those inroads to engage the community in a positive fashion, so they see that we’re not just not arresting them, not charging them — we’re engaging them in other capacities so they know they can trust us,” said Sgt. Haynes.