In Toronto, new crime-fighting tactics

Handgun shootings, mainly among young black males involved in gangs, increased sharply in 2005.

A spate of deadly gang shootings that culminated last month with the killing of a 17-year-old outside a church where he was attending another boy's funeral is forcing leaders here to reevaluate their approach to gang violence.

Long associated with low homicide rates and safe streets, "Toronto the Good," as this city has long been known, has experienced a sharp increase in handgun shootings over the past year, largely among young black men who belong to gangs.

Deaths from handgun shootings almost doubled this year to 50, up from 27 in 2004. In 1995, there were only 12 shootings out of a total of 60 homicides.

While the overall homicide rate has not risen significantly, officials are concerned about the long-term impact of growing amounts of gun violence on the streets. In response, the city is bringing together police, businesses, and churches in a bid to develop a long-term strategy that will stem gang influence.

Stressed families, poverty, and poor police rapport have all contributed to the growth of ghettos where, critics say, youth glamorize the "gangsta" culture and drop out of school early to join gangs to make quick money through drugs or prostitution.

Deputy Police Chief Tony Warr, who heads the Toronto Police Services' (TPS) guns and gangs unit, says that TPS recently redeployed 200 officers to patrol the city's most troubled gang neighborhoods on foot. Another 250 officers will be hired over the next year.

"We need to establish more of a presence where people live - both to stop crime and to develop relationships with them," Mr. Warr says.

But other preventative measures are being taken as well. Government officials have boosted funding for skills training for disadvantaged youth, while a handful of private companies have hired young interns from violent neighborhoods.

Several churches in the most dangerous areas have introduced after-school sports programs, chaperoned by police and pastors, as well as counseling and the teaching of proper social skills to obtain employment.

Some experts say that part of Toronto's problem lies in the fact that half of all illegal handguns seized annually by police (about 1,500 guns) are smuggled over the border from the US, a situation which has prompted public interest groups to lobby the government for tougher border controls. The other half are stolen from legitimate gun owners, sold illegally, or purchased over the Internet.

"We need stricter border controls - only 3 percent of cars crossing the border are even checked. We need support for our law enforcement to do undercover work to catch gun thieves and smugglers, and we need to pressure the US to take responsibility for its guns," says Wendy Cukier, president of the Toronto-based Coalition for Gun Control.

Another problem, says Hugh Graham, president of the Black Business and Professional Association, is a culture that puts violence and illegal activities on a pedestal - and schools that do little to counter that influence for minority children.

"We believe the problem is systemic - children in poor black ghettos lack hope and they go on to be stereotyped in the school system," says Mr. Graham.

"Hip-hop culture fascinates them at an early age and some become gangsters themselves. If I had a chance, I'd get rid of the black entertainment culture tomorrow."

A coalition of 27 African-Canadian organizations, for which Mr. Graham is spokesperson, met with Prime Minister Paul Martin days after the funeral shooting and emerged with a promise for $50 million Canadian [US$42.9 million] over five years to develop programs for troubled youth and to craft a crime prevention strategy.

The prime minister, who is in the throes of an election campaign for a Jan. 23 federal vote, has also promised to ban handguns nationwide.

The coalition plans to hold a summit for municipal, provincial, and federal leaders in March to get feedback on a plan they've suggested that includes scrapping the Safe Schools Act, described as an austere document which calls for immediate expulsion of children who show aggressive tendencies, and the inclusion of a civilian oversight body within the judicial system and the police force.

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