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‘A year like no other year,’ TPS Chief Mark Saunders reflects on 2018

MEREDITH BOND | posted Friday, Dec 28th, 2018

With a record number of homicides and two mass casualty incidents, Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders called 2018 “a year like no other year,” in his final press conference.

Saunders tackled a multitude of issues and answered some tough questions including the uptick in gun and gang violence, modernizing the police force, the increasing number of overdose deaths and strengthening community relationships.

Guns and gangs

Addressing the 95 homicides Toronto has seen in 2018, he said this was a unique year.

“I’m certainly not looking for another year like that in the foreseeable future … I do believe next year will be different.”

While the two mass causality incidents caused unrest in the general public, he explained the vast majority of those who lost their life were living high-risk lifestyles.

He called the Yonge and Finch van attack and the Danforth shooting the lowest point of the year for him and a game-changer for the community.

The Yonge Street van attack killed 10 people and another 14 were injured. An 18-year-old woman and a 10-year-old girl were shot and killed on the Danforth in July, 13 were injured in the attack.

“It’s one thing when you are dealing with gunplay, but it’s another thing when you are walking down a street and looking over your shoulder or you’re sitting in a restaurant with family and friends and the next thing, you have this,” Saunders said.

He adds many in the public still have concerns, but said Toronto is still the safest urban city in North America and with time, “people will understand this is a safe city.”

When asked whether there will be a public account of the Danforth shooting released to the public, he said there will be an opportunity to present information, but it’s not going to be today. “There’s still some more things that need to be looked at before we come out with any conclusions,” Saunders said.

The gunman, Faisal Hussain, shot and killed himself after opening fire on Danforth Avenue.

Tackling the issue of increasing gun violence, he said developing stronger community relationships is critical, but there is no “magic pill solution.”

Saunders said his officers have done a “fantastic” job getting guns off the streets, with 514 handguns seized in 2018, an increase of 222 over 2017. He said he is more focused on the motivation behind the gun violence, rather than where exactly the guns are coming from.

“I want to focus on who wants a gun, and why, and how do we stop that person from shooting that gun. If someone wants a gun, they are able to get a gun.”

When asked about the handgun ban Mayor John Tory has been supportive of, Saunders said, “I’m interested in people who are the motivated to shoot other people. If anyone wants to put any tools to reduce that, I’m supportive of that.” But he adds, diminishing gun violence and the motivation behind it, has to be intelligence-led.

He said the police’s role is to the reduce the number of shootings to the best of their ability, but you will never see an urban city that has zero shootings and zero homicides.

“If we have stronger relationships with the community, we have the opportunity to reduce that. But at the end of the day, when a young man takes a gun and shoots, there are different entities that are responsible for that. We are the aftermath of that. What is in front of that?”

Saunders said he was happy with the direction in which the cooperation with all levels of government is heading. He says they are seeing more funding which will lead to “some incredible results.”

But when it comes to street gangs, Saunders called the criminal code “antiquated.”

“When we go into communities that are underfunded, that feel despair, 99 per cent of the members of these communities are law-abiding, they care about their babies, but they have to deal with reality and concerned for their safety,” Saunders said. “It’s hard for someone to pick up the phone and call police over fear of retribution. I would like a methodology in which we can get still get that information, so it can make it into a court room.”

He said there needs to be more work done by lawmakers so people who want to contribute are able to help without fearing for their lives.

Overdose deaths

An exponential increase in overdose deaths in 2018 was also a major concern for the chief. Saunders reported Toronto saw 169 deaths this year, compared to 11 in 2017 and just six in 2016.

“You’re seeing this exponential change. You can’t just leave it to the police in harm reduction plans,” said Saunders. “Whenever law enforcement is dealing with a person that lives with mental health issues, then all those other agencies have failed them.”

He said he is looking forward to getting other agencies involved and not making it a police issue.

Bruce McArthur and the LGBTQ community

The arrest of accused serial killer Bruce McArthur in January created a further divide between Toronto police and the LGBTQ community who was allegedly targeted by McArthur.

Saunders said they learned a lot of lessons during the McArthur investigation, but added they acknowledge something was going on, and they allocated high-level resources. He also said the missing persons unit was created as a result of the investigation.

McArthur is currently facing eight charges of first-degree murder and will be standing trial in Jan. 2020.

When it comes to the LGBTQ community, Saunders said he believes they are moving in the right direction, but “there’s still a tremendous amount of work being put in for community building.”

Future of the police service

Another major part of 2018 which he plans to continue in 2019 is the modernization of the police force. He cited the work of special constables who he said responded to over 22,000 calls front-line officers normally would respond to.

They plan to continue hiring more special constables and communication professionals in the new year, along with continuing to hire more police officers.

Saunders said the pressures on the front-line workers is high as they’ve seen an increase in calls and an increase in the number of people reporting. He said the service will continue to look at ways of doing things smarter and putting the right resources in the right places.

The district model, he said, has been helpful in the redistribution of resources.

Pedestrian and cyclist deaths

When it comes to the number of pedestrian and cyclist deaths Toronto has seen on its streets in 2018, he said everyone has to assume responsibility on the roadways, and that includes pedestrians.

He adds he has spoken candidly about using technology better and more effectively to create traffic safety.

“People will obey the law if there’s a sign that says what they should be doing and if there is a method to capture if they don’t do it,” said Saunders. “But until that happens, you won’t see significant change.”

The good news

While tragic events have dominated the news in 2018, Saunders mentioned some bright moments including the rescue of two men from an elevator during the floods in downtown Toronto in August, reuniting Lyneth Mann-Lewis with her son after 31 years and more recently, Shirley Lee, who went missing on Christmas Eve and was found safe on Wednesday night by a citizen.

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