Six weeks into a special project aimed at combating gun violence, Toronto police Chief Mark Saunders says an increased police presence in street-gang-prone areas has been an “effective deterrent” to the shootings that erupted in the city over the summer months.
Dubbed “Project Community Space,” Saunders said the initiative has seen officers working with the guns and gangs unit performing “intelligence-led” work — from conducting bail compliance checks to upping visibility in communities victimized by gun violence and gang activity.
“This enhancement is allowing for our officers to be where the communities need us most,” Saunders told reporters at a news conference at police headquarters Monday morning, adding that officers “are in key areas and are able to get to scenes quickly.”
The $4.5-million project — funded by all three levels of government — was announced in August, amid a summer that saw a mounting number of shootings. Over the August long weekend alone, 17 people were injured in 14 shootings.
The city has seen 342 shootings in 2019 so far, the highest year-to-date number since at least 2014. However, gun deaths are significantly down from last year; there have been 29 this year, compared to 42 at this time last year.
At the halfway point of the initiative, Saunders said the program has resulted in 240 arrests and the laying of 525 charges, 35 per cent which were firearm-related.
Asked for a comparative statistic — to determine, for example, whether this is higher than would be typical without the initiative — Toronto police spokesperson Allison Sparkes said the intent of the midpoint update “is to advise of the associated arrests and charges made specific to this operational plan.”
“It is difficult to compare a year-to-date figure in this context, as the intelligence is current to what’s happening in the city (ie. Amount of calls for shooting events, etc),” she said in an email.
Officers also performed “a bail enforcement surge” and checked 876 individuals who are currently out on bail. Saunders said 12 people who were free on bail for firearm-related offences were rearrested. Thirteen guns were recovered during the initiative, Sparkes said.
Toronto police also say there was a 30 per cent reduction in shootings during the first six weeks of the program. Since the August 15 start, there have been 60 shootings, down from 85 shootings during the six weeks immediately before.
That decline, however, follows a seasonal pattern which often sees a greater number of shootings during the summer months — June, July and August — than in the fall, according to University of Toronto criminologist Julius Haag.
“I think it’s difficult to say with any kind of certainty that the police initiative itself contributed to that decline,” he said in an interview Monday.
While acknowledging that he understands that police want to provide information about the initiative, “especially when shootings are on everybody’s mind,” Haag nonetheless felt the release of information halfway through was “premature.”
Noting there was little comparative information, such as how many arrests would typically be made in a similar period of time, it is difficult to contextualize the initiative. He also questioned what he called “anecdotal claims” being made by police, including that police presence has been a deterrent and that communities have been telling officers that they feel safer.
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“To tout these claims as being sort of a broader community consensus — we know from our experiences with police and policing that the police also make many people in the community feel unsafe,” Haag said.
The initiative continues until October 31.