Council has endorsed $1.5 million in city funds for a policing initiative already underway to tackle gun crime while committing some start-up funds for a community program meant to directly intervene in neighbourhoods at risk of violence.
But despite the $300,000 committed to TO WARDS Peace — a program that would see experts intervene directly with at-risk youth in priority areas — the actual implementation of that initiative now depends on council agreeing to add $1.5 million in annual spending to the 2020 budget. That debate, as part of what are expected to be difficult budget deliberations, will take place early next year.
The votes Wednesday come after Mayor John Tory unilaterally pledged the policing funds in the face of an escalating number of shootings over the summer, something he does not have the authority to do.
Police then announced an 11-week project involving the guns and gangs unit targeting problem areas with “intelligence-led” policing, providing few other details.
The votes also come as some councillors and academics continue to insist that investment in community programs, not policing, is the only way to make meaningful, long-term change in the safety of communities.
Tory said he believes there are three areas of focus to help curb gun violence: support for the police, law reform and investing in youth and their families.
“In August of this year — and frankly it was not that much different in August of last year — there was a dramatic uptick in shooting incidents taking place in neighbourhoods across the city and I was hearing a lot about it,” Tory said. “People were anxious.”
He said he felt it was inappropriate to tell those people that council would consider measures at a meeting not scheduled until October and took it upon himself to ask the police chief what help he needed.
But several councillors questioned the mayor’s priorities.
Councillor Gord Perks (Ward 4 Parkdale—High Park) outlined the extensive findings of the provincial report on the roots of youth violence published more than a decade ago.
“This is all work that has been available to every member of Toronto city council for 12 years now and they tell us exactly what we need to do so that we do not have summers with shootings,” Perks said.
“They don’t say put more police officers in a neighbourhood. They don’t say surveil people more. They don’t say provide more money for tracking criminals. They don’t say make it harder to get bail. They say none of that. They say invest in young people in low-income and racialized groups in the city of Toronto.”
On Wednesday, he said council was once again responding in a way that does not invest in those youth.
Questioned about the research on the council floor, city staff confirmed the widely-accepted recommendations in the Roots of Youth Violence report did not include a call for increased policing.
A staff report to council also spoke to the research: “International best practices identify that it is critical to balancing reactive investments in criminal justice responses with meaningful and sustained investment in upstream violence prevention.”
Councillor Josh Matlow (Ward 12 Toronto—St. Paul’s), whose push to build more safe spaces for youth was earlier rejected by Tory and council, put it this way: “The reports have already been written. We just have to follow their advice.”
Tory’s push to for extra policing funds passed 23 to 2 with Perks and Matlow against.
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The city’s $1.5 million boost to Toronto police is matched by the provincial and federal governments, for a total $4.5 million for what’s dubbed Project Community Space.
Earlier this week, Chief Mark Saunders told reporters that at the halfway point in the initiative they had made 240 arrests and laid 525 charges. Of those, 35 per cent were firearms related.
Saunders himself earlier said that police are not able to arrest their way out of the gun violence problem, calling for a multi-faceted approach to supporting affected communities across the city.
Despite the research, recent government investments to tackle gun violence in Toronto have largely focused on policing and criminal justice initiatives rather than community supports.
The TO WARDS Peace program was previously put forward by staff to council for support in July 2018. At that time, council approved a more than $50 million anti-gun violence plan, with much fanfare, that relied entirely on other levels of government for funding.
It would bring together teams of leaders from community-based programs, city crisis response workers, health practitioners and people who have experience with violence in those communities to intervene with youth in areas where violence is a problem, staff say. The program would also beef up the city’s existing crisis response capabilities to address violent incidents and help to prevent the chance of retaliation and further escalation.
But after the federal government rejected most of those funding requests, that and other programs have gone unfunded.
Implementing TO WARDS Peace will require $1.5 million in ongoing annual funding, staff say, subject to council approval at budget time. Tory has asked for a business case to be submitted as part of the debate.
All of the spending approved by council Wednesday will be drawn from one of the city’s rainy day reserves — a fund intended to help cover gaps in the event operating revenues fall short of planned levels.
So far this year Toronto has seen more shootings than any year since at least 2014, according to police data, with more that 340 incidents. But gun deaths are down from 2018, from 42 this time last year to 30 so far this year.
The number of deaths climbed Tuesday night after two men were shot dead near Jane Street and Yorkwoods Gate in the northwest part of the city. Nearby, in what police allege was a related shooting, a 16-year-old boy suffered multiple injuries but survived.