National Column: Who to blame for Toronto gun violence

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by Rosie DiManno

Thoughts and prayers are fine. Certainly can’t hurt.

Shrines of flowers and stuffed animals are fine. A community wants to express its sorrow when tragedies strike, although we’ve become so cynical that small gestures are often ridiculed as shallow sentimentality.

Programs to engage youth, diverting them from gun and gang culture, are fine. Nobody is born bad, but some do grow up that way when options are limited, when they’re surrounded by a society of plenty and they have nothing. They want.

Enhanced mental health resources are fine. But the severely mentally ill are rarely dangerous to anyone other than themselves and demonizing the “crazies” – be they wasted drug users, or schizophrenic, or psychotic – is malicious.

Strangling gangbangers (not literally, obviously) is fine. But they’re laughing at us. Even when rounded up in aggressive multi-jurisdictional police raids, they’re laughing. They’ll make bail or not. They’ll be sent off to jail or not.

But as we’ve seen, from the names of accused charged in Project Patton last month, many of the same individuals had been arrested before for the same crimes. They’ve done time. And they’ve gone right back to criminal lives, a plague on their neighbourhoods. The laughter may be a mask, but sometimes the mask becomes grafted to the face.

You can blame it on poverty, on hopelessness, on racial and economic disparities, on families with absent fathers and shabby parenting, even on the allure of a swaggering macho gun culture glamourized in rap lyrics and videos.

One can’t, shouldnít, conflate the horrors of Sunday night on the Danforth or the April van attack along north Yonge St. – double whammies to the Toronto gut – with the night-to-night week-to-week violence on the city’s streets, in a year where murders and shootings are headed toward record heights.

Characterizing the spikes as modest or anomalies or short-term distortions ignores the fact that these were real lives lost, not mere statistics on a police database, and while the homicide tally stands at 58 – 29 fatal shootings, compared to 17 at this time last year – scant attention has been paid to the other 308 victims in 228 shooting incidents, year to date.

A shooter with a gun in his hand has all the power.

That’s what entices them.

Whether for financial profit – the drug business which underpins so much of the violence – or to avenge a perceived diss, as part of an urban gang, a kind of nihilistic militia, there’s power at the end of a gun. There’s warped, immediate justice.

And it’s so easy, if you have the nerve, if you don’t have the conscience, and especially if you care about yourself as little as you care about others.

What to do, what to do.

That was the debate, the hand-wringing, at Toronto city council on Tuesday, particularly a $44 million five-year strategy – developed by city staff but drawn up by Mayor John Tory and Police Chief Mark Saunders – to combat escalating gun violence, incorporating intervention and prevention programs (asking the feds for $29 million to pay for it), installing 40 additional CCTV cameras and perhaps purchasing the controversial “ShotSpotter” technology that detects the sound of gunshots and reports it in real time to police.

Much of it amounted to righteous rhetoric, before they got around to passing some sensible motions. But the exercise served as microcosm for crusaders at obstinate cross-purposes: the roots of violence brigade (thug huggers) versus the muscular law enforcement brigade (shock doctrine).

I don’t give a tinkerís damn about repurposing gun clubs and rezoning gun ranges. Those aren’t the firearms being used in homicides. Itís distracting argy-bargy.

I donít care about resurrecting the ditched long-gun registry that wrongly put the burden of bureaucracy on lawful hunters and farmers. Those arenít the firearms spilling blood on Toronto streets.

I do care about dismantling transit routes that bring guns into Canada – a federal jurisdiction. So, nothing but blather from the municipal politicians, to-ing and fro-ing, demanding Ottawa do this and do that.

Nobody needs a gun blah-blah-blah. Well, I’m not entirely sure about that either. But nobody needs an assault rifle – and they’re already banned, as are most semi-automatic weapons.

I do care, as everybody should, about young men seduced into the gang culture. Don’t require even a high school diploma for that. But target those at-risk communities – protecting the overwhelmingly law-abiding citizens therein – and youíre accused over-policing and racializing law enforcement.

It can’t be soft-soaped that crime is eating Toronto Community Housing alive – 4 per cent of city residents live there, coping with a drastically disproportionate level of crime in their midst, with the “takeover” by drug-dealers and gangbangers of units often inhabited by vulnerable tenants such as the elderly. “They do exist,” said new CEO Kathy Milsom. “They’re still a small percentage but they’re a huge
concern to us.”

The eviction for bad elements is lengthy and laborious. And, in the past, some of these same councillors who suddenly give a great big damn about violence advocated against loosening eviction protocols. Of course they donít live there.

Milsom asked council to urge the province – their jurisdiction – to provide Toronto public housing with more “tools and flexibility” for evictions.

“We do have the ability to evict tenants who have been convicted of crimes and we do undertake to do so as quickly as we can.”

Much talk about increasing community officer presence and crisis response units. Yet, at any given time, they have only between nine to 13 special constables on the road to cover 2100 buildings in 104 communities. If the problem is so urgent – no disputing it – then how can this be? Those numbers are ridiculous – outmanned, certainly outgunned, by the malefactors.

The most shocking fact that jumped out yesterday was when Police Chief Mark Saunders, in reply to a question, noted that, at peak times, he has only about 245 front-line officers to be deployed. On a police force of some 4,800 uniformed personnel.

“I need to get 300 people on the road.”

There have already been labour grumbles about the stopgap move – begun last weekend – to reduce gun violence by sending an extra 200 into priority areas between 7 p.m. and 3 a.m. over the next eight weeks via mandatory overtime. You’d probably grumble too if, as a cop, your insights into crime, on everything from street carding to intensive community mobilization strategies, are dismissed out of hand.

The road to the greater good is paved with noble intentions – and scattered with bullet-riddled bodies.

Twitter: @rdimanno
Copyright 2018-Torstar Syndication Services

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