We know police can’t solve the root causes of Toronto gun violence. What’s stopping us from doing what can?

Posted on December 19, 2020 in Inclusion Debates

Source: — Authors:

TheStar.com – News/GTA
Dec. 19, 2020.   Jim RankinStaff Reporter

Fifteen years ago this month, and three months after the execution-style murder of a young Black man I’d met and who had vowed to turn his life around, Winston LaRose was where you’d find him most days, tucked in the office of the Jane-Finch Concerned Citizens Organization in Yorkgate Mall.

It was the nearing the end of the “Year of the Gun” in Toronto, and LaRose — a psychiatric nurse and soul of the community lovingly featured in the 2019 documentary “Mr. Jane and Finch” — heaped blame for the surge in gun violence on cuts to education and social supports that began 25 years ago under the “Common Sense Revolution” of Mike Harris’s Progressive Conservative government.

LaRose, like many reports and research in Ontario and elsewhere had done, pointed to the root causes behind the trouble many of Toronto’s most impoverished youth, Black youth, in particular, find themselves in.

“Many of these kids that are committing all these murders, these are Harris’s children, because they were five and six years old (at the time of the 1995 election), and these were the kids that got neglected,” LaRose told me.

Forever nattily dressed in a suit, dress shirt, tie and flat cap, LaRose stressed in that “Year of the Gun” in 2005 that governments of all levels needed to invest in the next generation of kids who were five, six and seven years old, and their families, to improve lives, provide opportunities, create meaningful jobs, improve education and health outcomes, tackle systemic racism and reduce violent crime.

Here we find ourselves in 2020 — a year like no other — and yet still worse when it comes to violent gun crime.

“This shooting and killing, not just in Jane-Finch, that’s something I’m really concerned about,” LaRose, 83, said in an interview. “These are all Black men … and these people are running around shooting and murdering people. They’re brothers, and husbands and children.

“The boys are in trouble, dropping out of school, expelled, killed, in prison. We have to save our Black boys,” he said. “We need more than just words.”

There are many solutions to violent crime that have nothing to do with police — lessons already learned about supporting families and youth, and yet politicians have largely failed to act on the knowledge in meaningful, long-term ways.

Meanwhile, short-term interventions that reduce violent crime for young people in the throes of it right now are also vitally important, and experts agree these measures can and should be done in conjunction with long-term investments in supports and programming. To not do so is to write-off a current generation and ignore the deep trauma left for their survivors, family, friends and schoolmates.

Not yet written off, Andre Burnett, 24, found himself with a second chance in 2005.

He had a serious criminal record involving firearms and drugs, and survived being shot in the back by Toronto police in 2003. He’d even been accused, but not convicted, in a couple of shootings. But here he was alive and sitting in the Toronto Star newsroom at One Yonge Street with his mom and lawyer, talking about a future with his girlfriend and a son and a daughter, finding a place of their own, staying away from Jane and Finch.

Not long after the interview, he ended up back in jail on a breach of parole. Born an “angel” at Toronto General Hospital — sweet and sensitive as a kid and would serve up tea, as his mom would later tell me — Burnett was released from jail on a Saturday in September, then driven not far from his childhood home and “slaughtered” on a footbridge, in what remains an unsolved gun homicide.

The piece I wrote on him that year examined how his life, as the youngest of six children, differed from the rest of his siblings, who were doing well at the time. It seemed life had changed for Burnett when the family moved from a more affluent neighbourhood to Jane and Finch.

At the time, I quoted from Stephen Lewis’s 1992 report on racism in Ontario: “It is Black youth that is unemployed in excessive numbers, it is Black students who are being inappropriately streamed in schools, it is Black kids who are disproportionately dropping out, it is housing communities with large concentrations of Black residents where the sense of vulnerability and disadvantage is most acute, it is Black employees, professional and non-professional, on whom the doors of upward equity slam shut,” wrote Lewis.

“Just as the soothing balm of ‘multiculturalism’ cannot mask racism, so racism cannot mask its primary target.”

School streaming aside, the picture from 1992 remains largely unchanged.

There is a very tired and very true saying that stakeholders in the policing and justice worlds must be very tired of saying: “You can’t arrest your way out the problems crime causes.”

I don’t know how many times I have heard this since joining the Star in the early ’90s. But we’ve still seen increasing investments in police, the justice system and jails. Not so much in people.

Even former, tough-on-crime Toronto police chief Julian Fantino, in his 2007 memoir “Duty: The Life of a Cop,” recognized this. Crime “has no particular denominator, but certain crime has certain elements to it. You take a community with a lack of infrastructure, no support systems, and lots of young people being left to their own devices, and you’re going to have problems,” he wrote.

“Some of these high-density subsidized-housing developments do nothing but warehouse people. They ghettoize people. This has been a big problem in Toronto and in many other cities as well, and the inevitable results are tragic for everyone. These things were built for disaster.”

To be sure, it is complicated, and there are many factors at play, including illegal guns and the illegal drug trade, and how the latter works from the top on down to the streets, and the customers from all walks of life who fuel it, as Kofi Hope wrote in the Star recently.

But in this climate of racial reckoning and calls to “defund” police — and amid a global pandemic laying bare gaps in social support systems — a wealth of evidence-based research points, generally, to this: Lift up and support your neighbours, your young, your poorest, and you will reduce crime.

It is also, according to cost-benefit analysis, economically smart.

Invest early in terms of education, child supports, health, daycare — try holistic approaches to decrease poverty and disparate outcomes for Black, Indigenous and other racialized groups — and you’ll not only improve lives, but you’ll also save money. On health care, on police, on courts, on jails.

Housing a single male inmate in a federal maximum-security prison costs about $254 per day, according to a 2018 analysis by the Parliamentary Budget Officer. It’s less than $200 a day to house an inmate in an Ontario jail, but it adds up.

In 2008 and again in 2009, the Star published never-before-seen in Canada analyses of incarceration costs by postal code, showing some Toronto neighbourhoods were costing tens of millions of dollars in jail costs. If more were spent on early investments in people, and changes made to laws around punitive post-release conditions, money could be saved on incarceration and directed right back into those neighbourhoods. It could break a cycle that sees men removed from families and society.

“The concept really is: pay now, or pay later,” Ron Rock, then the head of the East Scarborough Boys and Girls Club told the Star in 2008.

Chris Williams was in high school in Toronto in 1992 when the Bob Rae NDP provincial government introduced a summer jobs program to the tune of $20 million. Williams worked two summers in the program, one of the thousands of young people aged 15 to 24 who were supported by the initiative, which was born out of the Rodney King police beating in Los Angeles, an ensuing Yonge St. “riot,” and a brawl at Centre Island.

The program coincided with Lewis’s report and was open to all young people, but had a particular focus on Black youth, historically disproportionately impacted by violent crime, targeted policing, poverty and other negative social determinants of health, including anti-Black racism.

At the time, the Black youth unemployment rate was 16.5 per cent, a full third higher than the general youth rate. No wonder, the allure of guns, gangs and drugs, nor the ensuing, generational war of attrition that comes with it.

Under the NDP program were jobs at companies like Xerox, IBM Canada, Ontario Hydro, Eaton’s, Canadian Tire the Toronto Star and banks — none of them of the pushing-a-broom variety.

Williams worked at Centennial College, for minimum wage, paid for by the government. It was get up every morning and do a straight-up 9-to-5, get a paycheque every two weeks. For Williams, it was a “formative” experience.

“It was a pretty powerful means of incentivizing the hiring of youth, the racialized youth who otherwise would have been going the full 10 weeks (of summer) with nothing,” Williams said in an interview.

“I don’t know the degree to which that had sort of a suppressive effect on criminal activity, but I do know a number of people who said that was the first opportunity in their lives to build up a resume, and once you start getting a few good entries on a resume, you do that two or three years and it’s all the references, and all of the positive spinoffs that flow from them,” said Williams.

The job program was later cut by the PC government.

Williams went on to become an academic and is a respected voice on anti-Black racism and the shortfalls of policing and the justice system.

That was how his life, indirectly, intersected with that of Andre Burnett. In 2013, Williams was one of three authors of “From the Margins,” a federally-funded report on reintegration and building a curriculum for youth involved in the criminal justice system.

And while Williams did the heavy lifting on data analysis, co-author Devon Jones interviewed a 15-year-old named Kwasi Skene-Peters, who was incarcerated at the Roy McMurtry Youth Centre.

Skene-Peters had been part of Jones’s mentoring program, called Boys to Men, and he was one of eight boys in the program who came across Burnett’s dead body on the footbridge in September 2005.

There were no grief councillors to debrief the children. After Burnett’s body had been taken away, “body matter and blood” remained on the scene as kids reported for school two days later, noted Jones. Hundreds of kids used the footbridge and were “exposed to the residual physical dimensions of the tragedy,” he wrote.

“In addition to being demonized and maligned by the status quo, these children are victims of marginalizing processes fuelled by racism and apathy,” Jones wrote in the paper, which identified Skene-Peters only by his initials, since he was then a youth.

Coming across Burnett’s body was a pivotal moment in Skene-Peters’s life, Jones wrote.

He too ended up involved in the criminal justice system, and was killed by police in a 2015 shootout while wanted for first-degree murder in the shooting deaths of two men in a rented condo.

The “From the Margins report resurfaced following his death, and stories referenced a section in which Skene-Peters had said a judge had called him a “monster” at sentencing, and that by going back to the youth detention centre the “world would see a monster when I get out of this hell hole — this place made me a monster, every day I am literally fighting for my life.”

Skene-Peters was 21 when he died and, said Williams, “even in death he still exerts a particular influence over the ethos of some of the young people who live in that neighbourhood.” The cycles of violence and trauma, said Williams, are “a very intergenerational thing and it’s really something to behold.”

Recommendations from the report aimed at interinstitutional co-ordination to help youth re-enter society, said Williams, didn’t receive “substantial uptake.”

The seminal 2008 Ontario Roots of Youth Violence Inquiry and ensuing reportkeeps resurfacing as a blueprint for policy-makers. As part of that, University of Toronto criminologist Scot Wortley warned that an increasing divide between the rich and poor in Toronto placed the city at a crossroads that might lead to higher violent crime rates. That divide has only grown deeper since.

Social programming and supports would lessen that divide, and prevent crime.

Alvin Curling, who co-authored the main Roots report with former Chief Justice Roy McMurtry, has championed the creation of a “czar-like” position to break down the silos of about a dozen provincial ministries that intersect with youth and bring them to the same table to find solutions.

Curling has said it is not a matter of needing or finding new money, but better coordination.

More recently, criminologists like University of Ottawa professor emeritus Irvin Waller, an advocate for victim’s rights and crime prevention, point to what is happening in the United Kingdom, with its Youth Violence Commission.

Waller calls it “mandatory reading” for anyone commenting on defunding police and Black Lives Matter. The commission, comprised of members of Parliament from all parties, aims to get each party to support the commission’s recommendations ahead of the next election.

In its report released this summer, the commission focuses on a public health approach and violence-reduction units, which was the key ingredient, notes Waller, in a “best-practice model” in Glasgow that reduced violent crime by 50 per cent in only three years.

The approach, outlined in the commission’s final report, hinges on a “long-term vision” of tackling the root causes of serious violence through the adoption of a public health approach to violence reduction.

It identifies three steps to making it work. First, understanding the problem through data analysis, then, doing what works based on best available theory, feedback from youth and youth workers and analysis, and finally reviewing, evaluating and improving approaches and policies.

In short, it takes from the best and makes sure it has enduring funding, and does away with the cyclical and short-term funding tied to election cycles — a profound problem in Canada.

There are now 18 such regional violence reduction units across the U.K., each adopting a broad social framework approach around early supports for children and families, education, employment, housing, policing and youth services.

The cost of running them for ten years is pegged at £350 million (about $591 million), compared to a cost of £10 billion ($16.9 billion) from serious violent crime among young people for that same period, according to the final report.

The 18 units would need to reduce serious violent crime between young people by only three per cent to be cost-effective, the report concludes.

In an email to the Star, Waller said that while the violence-reduction units don’t sound very sexy, “what could be more ‘sexy’ than having every city in Canada reduce violence, most of which is perpetrated by and against Black and Indigenous young men.”

There is a scene in “Mr. Jane and Finch” where Winston LaRose — then mounting a run at Toronto city council in 2018 in the ward that includes the neighbourhood he loves — is at an-all candidates debate.

Jane and Finch, the often-maligned neighbourhood, had been in the news.

Incumbent councillor Giorgio Mammoliti had that year called his own constituents “cockroaches.” And Michael Tibollo, a newly minted Ontario Minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services, had described at Queen’s Park how he had donned a bulletproof vest and gone on a police ride-along in the area, “visiting sites that had bullet-ridden people killed in the middle of the night.”

Mammoliti vowed at the candidates’ debate that he would bring more police to the area.

When it was LaRose’s turn to speak on the topic of crime, he took the microphone and said the opposite.

“Our politicians are not dealing with the fundamental root causes of what’s causing crime,” he said. “It’s always about bringing in more police officers. Putting police officers in our schools. They’ll bring them in our churches next.

“What I’m saying to you is this: If we restructure or push our governmental approach to how we create societies and communities, we will not have the crime problem.”

LaRose did not win a seat in that election. But constituents showed Mammoliti the door.

On a recent, sunny morning, Mr. Jane and Finch was in the neighbourhood and brimming with optimism. There is construction all around the intersection for the coming Finch West LRT. A transformation is underway and, in time, the neighbourhood LaRose first came to in 1994 will be like a “new downtown,” he said — in his dreams, it includes an African Canadian museum and a botanical garden.

There is also a greater sense of awareness around anti-Black racism, which has pleased LaRose.

His one fear is that gentrification may push the heart and soul from the area.

“I really love the people,” he said. “Jane-Finch is being revitalized, it’s being redeveloped and I don’t want it to become a different place that pushes out all of these people.”

Even in a mask for COVID-19, LaRose, who has been running a 100-metre sprint each year on his birthday since he turned 65, is recognizable. A Black man in his 60s who he’d helped after an encounter with police that included Tasering and hospitalization stopped him on the sidewalk. He recounted what happened with police and tears quickly came to his eyes. Living off disability benefits, he was now having trouble even seeing a caseworker because of the pandemic.

LaRose, who no longer has a space in Yorkgate Mall but still advocates for others for free, took out a pen and jotted down the name and number of the worker. Mr. Jane and Finch told the man he would help, as he always does.



Tags: , , , , , , ,

This entry was posted on Saturday, December 19th, 2020 at 3:22 pm and is filed under Inclusion Debates. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

Leave a Reply