Toronto police brass insist guns and gangs unit is a ‘priority’

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After a morning of uncertainties about staffing levels of the Toronto police gun and gang unit, Mayor John Tory and police brass surfaced after lunch Friday to assure a city that has seen a rise in gun violence that there will be no reductions.

Following media reports of realignment and reductions — and a “very good discussion” with Chief Mark Saunders — Tory told reporters he didn’t order anybody to do anything but came away assured that staffing would remain the same.

While staffing in the guns and gangs unit will remain the same, the Toronto police are expanding a program that places dedicated officers in particular neighbourhoods for four-year terms.
While staffing in the guns and gangs unit will remain the same, the Toronto police are expanding a program that places dedicated officers in particular neighbourhoods for four-year terms.  (Toronto Star file photo)

Deputy Chief Barbara McLean, ahead of an afternoon Toronto Police Services Board meeting, also assured there would be no change in the numbers, but would not discuss any organizational changes.

“We are staffing our guns and gangs capability, our unit, the same today, that we will next week, next month,” said McLean. The unit is a “priority,” she said.

What is changing is the size of the Neighbourhood Officer Program, which stations dedicated officers in neighbourhoods for four-year terms. It is set to grow from neighbourhood officers in 33 neighbourhoods to 41, and, eventually 60 of the city’s 144 neighbourhoods — and perhaps beyond.

The eight new neighbourhoods, to which a total of 40 neighbourhood officers and four neighbourhood sergeants will be assigned, beginning in October, are Lambton Baby Point, Weston-Pelham Park, Islington City Centre West, Etobicoke West Mall, Oakridge, Kennedy Park, L’Amoreaux and Malvern.

The final phase of the expansion is expected in October 2019.

The program began in 2013, amid increasing controversy over carding, with a mandate to reduce crime, build relationships with residents, increase residents’ trust of police and learn more about the needs of the neighbourhoods. The early results are promising, Humber College criminal justice professor Doug Thomson told the police services board.

It is in many ways a throwback to a community policing model that saw officers walking a beat, and truly getting to know the people in the neighbourhoods they work in.

Board member Marie Molinor called it an “exciting” day for the program and the service. Mayor Tory put forward a motion, which was passed unanimously, to seek help from the province and Ottawa to fund the neighbourhood officer expansion for the next five years, which will cost around $17 million a year, he said.

Amid a municipal election campaign, the gun violence and what to do about it have become focal points, and intensified after this week’s death of 15-year-old Mackai Jackson in Regent Park. Police continue to investigate the shooting and a police spokesperson said Thursday investigators are looking for more information and could not confirm or rule out if the shooting was intentional.

Shootings in Toronto are up over the past several years. As of Monday, there had been 310 reported shootings so far in 2018, with 137 people injured and 40 killed. At this time in 2017, 29 people had been killed in shootings and 126 injured.

In July, following the mass shooting on the Danforth, city council approved a five-year, $44 million plan to combat gun violence. In 2018, $7.4 million is earmarked for stepped-up enforcement and new CCTV cameras, while just over $1 million is to go to community initiatives.

Police also added 200 officers to the streets during the summer, achieved through overtime, and there are plans to hire more. On Thursday, the service welcomed 27 new recruits.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford has promised Toronto $25 million over four years to fight “thugs” — $18 million of which is for the Toronto Police Service to use as it sees fit, and $7.5 million toward “legal SWAT teams” to ensure people facing violent gun charges don’t get bail.

The service’s current integrated gun and gang task force includes a guns and gangs unit, firearms enforcement unit, major project section and a biker enforcement unit. Detectives assigned to the task force support shooting-related investigations, conduct organized gang busts and investigate the smuggling, trafficking and possession of “crime guns,” according to the task force web page.

Media reports late this week suggested plans were afoot to reconfigure and shrink the number of teams in the unit. If that was the case, it no longer was by Friday.

Jim Rankin is a reporter based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @Jleerankin


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