Handgun bans. Anti-gang crackdowns. Easy bail. In Toronto, as the number of people killed or injured in shootings continues to surge, such terms are often used by municipal leaders, politicians, police. But what do we really know about guns, gangs, and possible solutions to a growing violence problem? In our Loaded Questions series, the Star is aiming to find answers … and to find out when we don’t know the answers … to some life-and-death questions.
On an unusually hot spring afternoon last year, two young men stepped out of a Volkswagen Tiguan and onto Parliament Street with handguns drawn.
One fired a shot from a long-barrelled revolver — sending pedestrians running for cover — before the gunmen rejoined their masked accomplices in the car and sped off, leading police on a dangerous, high-speed chase through downtown Toronto. Miraculously, no one was injured.
It was an alarming incident in a public space linked to gang warfare that police and politicians say is largely responsible for escalating gun violence on city streets.
Toronto is on track to set a record for the number of shootings this year. There have been more than 200 people killed or injured in shootings in the city. Police say most of them are gang-related, though in some cases the victims themselves are innocent residents.
Police and politicians have pledged to dedicate more resources to curbing illegal gang activity. Solutions aren’t easy.
“There is going to be a change and a shift in what we need to do to have a stronger focus on street gangs,” Toronto police Chief Mark Saunders said in August after a spate of shootings prompted the formation of an 11-week, intelligence-led initiative called Project Community Space.
Earlier this month, city council voted to boost police spending on anti-gun violence efforts by $1.5 million, in addition to the $3 million committed by the provincial and federal governments.
Some insist that investment in community programs, not policing, is the best way to make communities safer — and Saunders doesn’t disagree.
“We are not going to arrest our way out of this … it takes a multi-pronged approach to get this right,” the chief said in August.
Along with the “no snitching” code of the streets, police in 2019 are dealing with a new kind of gangster who inhabits both the street and the internet, where online feuds can escalate quickly, fuelling real life violence.
What is the definition of a street gang today?
A gang is a “group of three or more people who, through the organization, formation, and establishment of an assemblage, share a common identity. In current usage, it typically denotes a criminal organization or else a criminal affiliation,” according to the Toronto police 2018 Gangs in Toronto overview report.
Street gangs in Toronto usually comprise males, some who have known each other since they were children, the report says.
There is no one structure that applies. There may be a core group of individuals who have earned a “fierce reputation through acts of violence and serious criminal offences.”
In Toronto, gangs commonly establish themselves in and around the area in which they live or conduct their illegal activity. They will generally adopt a name for the gang from a local street, park or nearby housing complex.
How much of the spike in shootings is attributed to street gangs?
“An absolute majority,” of shootings in Toronto are gang-related, says Insp. Joe Matthews, head of the integrated gun and gang task force.
Put another way: “Zero to very few we know are absolutely not gang-related.”
Gun violence continues to be near record levels in Toronto. As of mid-October, 210 people have been killed or injured in shootings this year.
That’s up from 82 by that date in 2014 and the most in any year police records that go back to 2004.
What’s different about gangs now, as opposed to the past?
Toronto’s street gangs have more access to guns and bullets and are not afraid to use them. They are also more sophisticated and have branched out into different criminal enterprises, including firearms importation and human trafficking, according to police.
“Street gangs have evolved to a level where many are now operating as recognized criminal organizations,” according to a summary of a session held at a national gang seminar in June.
“They have capitalized on the borderless and unregulated nature of the Internet and have established lucrative on-line criminal operations to support their activities that have caused immeasurable harm to communities across Canada.”
How has social media affected gang violence?
Matthews, head of the task force, began investigating Toronto street gangs 20 years ago. Gang members “using social media … to antagonize and threaten rival gang members,” has led to countless retaliatory shootings, he says.
Someone with first-hand experience with gang life is Marcell Wilson. In the mid-’90s into the early 2000s, he was a gun-carrying member — and leader — of several west-end Toronto street gangs.
“Today is a totally different beast, when you add technology into the mix,” says Wilson, now 40.
“Back in my day, if you got into it with another group, you physically had to be there, go to their neighbourhood, face to face. We weren’t as connected as these kids now.” Wilson is co-founder and co-executive director of One on One, a non-profit organization with a mission to save lives and make our communities safer.
He’s baffled that anyone in the criminal subculture would want to advertise it on the internet, “which to guys like us makes no sense,” he says. We “wanted to fly below the radar,” and respect came from “not getting caught.” Many of today’s gang-related prosecutions rely on text messages, videos and social media postings to help secure convictions.
Last November, Jermaine Dunkley, leader of a gang called Monstarz who rapped as JNoble, was convicted of murder connected to an online-fuelled feud between groups in Jamestown and Mount Olive. Police believe it began when another gang member posted a rap video daring Dunkley to walk up on him. In response, Dunkley released a video showing him and his crew prowling though the rival neighbourhood.
At least 10 shootings between the two neighbourhoods, two of them homicides, appear connected to the videos, according to the Gangs in Toronto “overview” report prepared for Dunkley’s murder trial in Superior Court last year.
Are gang-related shootings becoming more brazen?
This new breed of gangster shoots random targets because of where they live, or fires off shots in broad daylight with no regard for who might get hit. That is a break from the old code of the street, where beefs stayed between enemies and any attention was unwanted, says Wilson, the ex-gang member, a towering man with a gentle reserve.
Now shootings are provoked by gang members ordering enemies to be shot “on sight,” which means “even if you’re with your mother on the bus with your two children, and shoot him on the bus, whoever gets hit, gets hit. We don’t come from that. That’s the difference,” says Wilson.
So pulling the trigger on an “opp,” or a member of the opposition, doesn’t matter if it’s on the highway, or a shopping mall, school or park. “If I have my gun and opps have theirs we better shoot or be shot.”
On the same page is Edward Hertrich, who served more than 35 years in prison for killing a fellow drug dealer in 1978. Now in his 60s, Hertrich has written a book about his life called “Wasted Time.” He was part of an east-end Toronto crew that trafficked in speed.
“I grew up in Regent Park, if you had a fight with someone, you fought them one-on-one. If you lost, you handled your business yourself. We didn’t kill someone over nothing,” says Hertrich.
“To take a life back then, it had to be something very serious. I took a life and it was very stupid,” he says. “I didn’t go and start blasting everybody in sight to get the guy I wanted. I isolated the guy and that was that. Criminals, in my time, we dealt in the criminal subculture, we did not involve society.” Hertrich had been a speed supplier. His victim’s body was discovered in a shallow grave about 100 kilometres east of Toronto.
Who are the major active street gangs in Toronto in 2019?
In 1998, the Star published a map of “Toronto Youth gang territories” based on police estimates that 180 youth gangs existed. Few of those gangs or groups exist today. Members go to jail, move away, get murdered or grow up and out of gangland activity.
Despite Toronto’s population growth since then, police estimate there are between 160 and 180 groups fitting the definition of a gang, though the numbers fluctuate. Some gangs from two decades ago have morphed into newly branded gangs or subsets.
Insp. Matthews won’t get into gang numbers or names, not wanting to “glorify” any crew.
Toronto police gang crackdowns over the last 15 years indicate some gangs have become entrenched, primarily in at-risk neighbourhoods.
Last year, Project Patton targeted members of the 5 Point Generals, a gang from the Lawrence Avenue and Weston Road area believed to be involved in homicides, shootings, and firearm and drug trafficking.
In 2009, Toronto police went after the same gang in an operation called Project Corral, arresting 98 people. Thirteen of the people arrested in Project Corral were arrested again in Project Patton in 2018.
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“It’s a revolving door,” said one Crown attorney assigned to prosecute gangs.
Another recurring Toronto gangland name is the Galloway Boys, originating in Toronto Community Housing highrises and townhouse complexes near Kingston and Galloway Roads.
Members of the Galloway Boys, or G-Way, first came on the public’s radar 15 years ago after Toronto police targeted the gang’s members as part of a wiretap investigation called Project Pathfinder, that led to mass arrests. Pathfinder came on the heels of Project Impact, another police crackdown targeting their violent, drug-selling arch rivals living in Malvern in northeast Scarborough.
Some of the gang’s leaders were convicted of first-degree murder and continue to serve life sentences.
Almost a decade later, in 2013, Toronto police rounded up the next generation of G-way members, after the city’s worst ever mass shooting on Danzig Street in 2012. Two gang members exchanged gunfire at an outdoor party, leaving two dead and 23 wounded.
According to a synopsis of a seminar at a national gang conference in Mississauga last June, the Galloway Boys have used “their near celebrity status and association to the entertainment industry to turn their small-scale criminal enterprise into a well-known international product.”
Matthews would not discuss Galloway gangsters nor their alleged associations to the entertainment industry.
Do Toronto gangs have U.S. connections?
Some Toronto gangs identify with Crips and some with Bloods, two warring gang “nations” in the United States that battle for control over neighbourhoods and illegal activities.
But the ties to both groups with notorious reputations appears to be nothing more than adopting some of their “common identifiers,” such as wearing blue for Crips or red for Bloods, according to the police 2018 gang overview report.
Two police officers say there is no evidence of Toronto gangs taking any direction or leadership from Crips or Bloods gangs in the United States.
The reason they choose to align with one or the other is “completely random,” said one officer. “They may call themselves Crips but it means very little,” agreed the other front-line cop. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because they’re not authorized to speak on behalf of the Toronto police.
Which Toronto street gangs don’t like each other?
Many shootings and homicides have been linked to the historical and ongoing conflict between the Project Originals (PO), a gang associated to the Atkinson Housing Co-op, near Spadina Avenue and Dundas Street West, and gangs in Regent Park on downtown’s east side.
In the Rexdale area in the northwest part of Toronto, there are two prominent gangs “and their associated legacies/variations/subsets,” with a long history of violence dating back to 2000. On one side are Jamestown, or Doomstown Crips, including G7 and IDS. Their hated rivals are members of the Mount Olive Crips and Monstarz, a subset group that started out in 2010.
Investigators are probing whether two recent slayings link back to some historic Toronto gangland wars.
Last year Oliver “Twinky” Willis, once a leader of the Jamestown Crips, was gunned down in Brampton and this past summer, Duane “Bigz” Williams, associated with Malvern gangs in northeast Scarborough, was fatally shot, also in Brampton. Police believe he ignited the infamous Malvern-Galloway feud after he allegedly stole a gun circa 1999.
Have Toronto gang boundaries shifted?
Toronto gang members are stretching their legs.
Thunder Bay, in particular, has seen an influx of gang members from southern Ontario.
“They’re not going there to set up new chapters because they want to be a positive influence in the community. They’re going there to sell their drugs because the market here might be a little bit saturated,” says Matthews.
Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown stirred up some controversy last month when he blamed Toronto gang activity for a recent rash of gun violence in Peel Region. “Gang activity doesn’t respect postal codes,” he tweeted, to the ire of Toronto Mayor John Tory, who said the remark wasn’t “very constructive.”
Shootings and killings all over Ontario — including the April shooting of a young man in a Waterloo Subway shop — have been linked to Toronto gang members visiting or moving outside the city and taking their beefs with them.
What election promises are the federal parties making to combat gang violence?
The campaigning federal parties are pitching a range of measures.
The Conservatives promise to end “automatic” bail for gang members awaiting trial, revoke parole for gang members who associate with their former gang after being released, and to put in place mandatory minimum sentences for violent gang crime and possession of smuggled guns.
The New Democrats propose to address the root causes of gang violence by confronting issues like poverty and racial discrimination and investing more money in affordable housing and health care. They say they would make sure communities have access to funding for programs that deter youth from joining gangs, and support any city that would ban handguns and increase funding to help stop the flow of illegal guns from the U.S.
The Liberals promise to ban assault weapons, spend nearly $330 million on a national guns and gangs strategy, and earmark $51 million over five years for enforcement at the U.S. border.
Toronto defence lawyer Daniel Brown, vice-president of the Criminal Lawyers Association, said many of the promises ring hollow.
“There is no such thing as “automatic bail” in our justice system. More importantly, our Criminal Code already has in place strong presumptions against bail for those accused of participating in gang activity,” he says.
“Our current parole rules allow for conditions to be imposed on gang members which would prevent them from associating with other gang members or known criminals. A failure to abide by this condition results in an automatic revocation of parole.”
Brown wrote that most mandatory jail sentences have been struck down by the courts as unconstitutional. Gang members and gun smugglers are already receiving significant jail sentences, he says.
Banning guns won’t solve the gang crisis in Toronto, he says. “There is no shortage of illegal firearms for sale on the black market,” he says.
“The key to curbing gang activity is to stop young people from turning to gangs in the first place. Investing in social and educational programs as well as employment opportunities is a must. At risk youth need a meaningful alternative to the corrosive, violent existence of the gang lifestyle.”