Toronto police say they plan to tackle the insidious and growing problem of gun and gang violence with new “neighbourhood teams” that link community members with dedicated officers, and a narrower focus on the worst offenders.
“This is a fundamental change in the way we’re doing policing,” interim chief Jim Ramer told the Toronto Police Services Board meeting Thursday. “We’re not doing things to communities; we’re building relationships with those communities, we’re building trust, we’re building confidence and we’re mobilizing resources.”
On the enforcement side, he said, that means being more precise “to make sure we’re attacking, or enforcing, those small elements that are causing all the problems.”
Within hours of the announcement, that new direction had already received a thumbs-down from two criminologists, who called it a “smokescreen for punitive policing and crime control strategies.”
The blueprint for what the service is calling “Project Engage” is based on input gathered from 30 gang prevention town halls held in Toronto’s “lowest equitable and gang impacted neighbourhoods,” led by Det. Const. Ron Chhinzer of the force’s Integrated Gang Prevention Task Force. The meetings were conducted between September 2019 and March 5 this year, with the final two sessions in Black Creek and Weston—Pellam Park cancelled because of the COVID-19 pandemic. A report summarizing the findings was also tabled at Thursday’s virtual board meeting.
During the town halls conducted by Chhinzer, the officer acknowledged that the service’s longtime strategy of conducting major gang projects, often resulting in dozens of arrests in a single day, has done little to curb growing gang violence.
In the past two decades, tens of millions of dollars have been spent on massive gang sweeps with names such as Project Impact, Project Kronic and Project Corral. These investigations have involved wiretapping and surveillance on suspected gang members, and the mass execution of search warrants on highly publicized takedown days.
Over the years, community activists and defence lawyers have criticized these crackdowns for casting too wide a net, scooping up tangential players — or family members — of gang-involved youth, exacerbating community tensions with police and providing only short-term solutions to the violence plaguing neighbourhoods.
At the town halls, Chhinzer noted that gang members have a high recidivism rate, with 68 per cent reoffending after they’ve served their sentences.
On Thursday, Chhinzer appeared at the board meeting with police brass, and in a pre-recorded video outlining the plan’s five “core” strategies of community mobilization, opportunities, social intervention, suppression and organizational change and development.
In a polished presentation, Chhinzer told the board members, including Mayor John Tory, that recruiting is already underway to establish 12 new neighbourhood teams that, according to the www.Engage416.ca website, will each include 10 civilian participants from a variety of backgrounds, along with five police officers.
Non-law-enforcement participants will include outreach workers, representatives from grassroots agencies, social services, schools, faith-based organizations, social housing, local businesses and community members, he said. According to the website, the teams will hold regular meetings and develop “community involvement strategies.”
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Chhinzer called it a complete “wraparound approach” that will involve “going right to gang members and their families,” though he provided no specifics on how that would unfold.
“This won’t have a quick fix. This is going to take some time. But we have boots to the ground … now as we speak,” he said.
Also at the town halls, Chhinzer said Project Engage was initiated by Ramer, who, three years ago as deputy chief, came to the Toronto police guns and gangs unit and acknowledged that the major gang projects have been ineffective. “In fact, it’s getting worse,” Chhinzer said at one town hall last year, quoting Ramer. Neither Chhinzer nor Ramer responded to the Star’s interview requests Thursday.
Asked for their assessment, criminologists Adam Ellis and Anthony Gunter wrote in an email that the Toronto police plan appears to be based on a U.S. model that hasn’t proved to be effective.
“The U.S. has used this model for a long time however there continues to be issues with street violence and a breakdown in police/community relations,” they wrote.
A better response would be a strategy that isn’t led by state authorities “who have historically harmed and traumatized these communities,” they added. “Such strategies should be bottom-up and more about developing and transforming communities instead of focusing on group/individual behaviours.”
Ellis is a criminologist at the University of Toronto’s Centre for Criminology and Sociolegal Studies; Gunter is a criminologist with the U.K.’s Open University.
Seated at the table with Chhinzer and Ramer at Thursday’s board meeting was American documentary filmmaker Rico King, who described how he helped broker peace among gang members in Baltimore and Houston.
Asked by a board member what advice he has for Toronto, King said he learned a lot “from hardcore individuals — who don’t have a voice (but have) some of the best solutions. Without this point of view, I think it’s going to be hard to tackle this situation.”
Louis March, the founder of the Zero Gun Violence Movement, who made a deputation at the board meeting, praised Chhinzer for listening during the town halls, and said he is correct that there has to be a “collaborative” approach focused on “prevention and intervention.”
But he added a note of skepticism, saying that what police have done is “problem assessment,” when the problems have been identified long ago, and have only grown worse today because of the brazenness of gang crime, the young age of shooters, the influence of social media and access to guns.
“What do we do with the information gathered, that he has gathered? Does it become another report? Does it sit down on another shelf?”
Betsy Powell is a Toronto-based reporter covering crime and courts for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @powellbetsy
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