HE WAS 29 when it happened. Police found him on Oct. 16 in the Danforth and Warden Avenues area, slumped over in a car, the victim of a gunshot wound to the head. Isba Hassan Ismeil was Toronto’s 50th homicide of the year.
While these scenes may seem too familiar, they contrast a subtler truth coming from the numbers. Crime levels have been dropping steadily:Toronto is getting safer by the year.
Every year Statistics Canada measures the severity of crimes reported across Canada, weighing the number of homicides committed over the number of minor thefts.
Between 2008 and 2009, in Toronto, the seriousness of the crimes committed dropped four per cent. The only metropolitan areas in Canada where crimes were less grave were Guelph and Quebec City; even then, the difference was minimal.
In Toronto the rate of crime over the past decade has also been dropping. Compared to 2000 statistics, in 2008 there were 2,643 fewer breaking and enterings, 167 fewer sexual assaults, 3,887 fewer non-sexual assaults and 9,657 fewer Criminal Code offences committed.
So what is Toronto’s secret? What do we have going for us?
Howard Moscoe, a former councillor for the Eglinton- Lawrence ward, says he has seen, over the decades, a large decrease in crime rates for Division 13, which includes Lawrence Heights.
He says having police engage the community is key. “They’re getting to know the people in the community, and through getting to know the community, it becomes safer,” says Moscoe.
This was also a technique that the provincial government and the municipal government agreed upon back in 2005. That year had been dubbed “year of the gun”; there were significantly more shooting deaths in the city, including the Boxing Day shooting of 15-year-old Jane Creba outside of the Eaton Centre.
In response to this surge, the province gave a grant to Toronto police Chief Bill Blair to address the crime problem. The grant resulted in the Toronto Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy (TAVIS).
One of the main components of TAVIS is community engagement. The TAVIS officers can be seen in Scarborough giving cooking lessons, or they’re playing soccer with kids in the Jane and Finch area.
A current city-wide project,called Light the Night, is an initiative between Toronto Hydro and TAVIS to install light bulbs in porches and rear laneways.
“People tend to conceal themselves in darker areas. If we can light it up, they’re no longer anonymous,”says TAVIS coordinator Sgt. Jeff Pearson.
He says the program also allows officers to engage more with locals as they go door to door, so that if there is a violent crime in the area there’s a better chance it would be reported to police.
Another key aspect of TAVIS, says Pearson, is that the program allowed the city to hire 72 more police officers, who provide extra patrol support in neighbourhoods with higher crime rates. Pearson says the initiative has been quite effective: this year alone, the officers have seized 39 firearms.
“These were dangerous people, dangerous situations,” he says. According to Statistics Canada, one area of crime that did increase by 10 per cent in Toronto between 2008 and 2009 was attempted murder. Perhaps these numbers are more in line with what mainstream media portrays, such as a shooting in Lawrence Heights last month that left two men wounded.
William Schroder, the executive director of the Crime Prevention Association of Toronto, says these types of crimes tend to happen more in priority neighbourhoods such as Flemingdon Park or Lawrence Heights, rather than Yorkville.
However, the recent revitalization of priority neighbourhood Regent Park has had a positive effect on crime rates, meaning there is hope that Toronto’s remaining crime issues will be reduced as well.
This is a hope Moscoe has for Lawrence Heights, which is about to undergo a revitalization project similar to Regent Park.
He says making the area a mixed-income community will help to reduce the concentration of problem residents; the design of the new community, which includes replacing the existing units and adding 4,792 new ones,will also help reduce crime.For instance, many of the townhouses will back onto a park.
“If there’s a lot of people who have a clear view of the park, you’d expect that there would be less crime that would take place,” says Moscoe. “It’s the old theory of eyes on the street.”
According to Pearson, it’s also the community crisis response groups in these areas, that are crucial.
“Filling cells is not going to change anything,” says Pearson. “It’s about building relationships. There are a lot of people doing a lot of great work in our neighbourhoods.”