'This was a unique year:' Saunders addresses homicide rate in year-end news conference
Published Thursday, December 27, 2018 9:30AM EST Last Updated Thursday, December 27, 2018 8:18PM EST
To call the past year in Toronto normal would be misleading.
That was the message from Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders Thursday in a wide-ranging year-end news conference that touched on a record homicide rate, two mass casualty incidents in the city and the arrest of an alleged serial killer, among other things.
“We had two mass casualty incidents. There’s a lot to be said for that. On top of that we’ve arrested somebody, allegedly a serial killer. You factor all of these things, and for me to say that this is a normal year, I’d be misleading you,” Saunders said. “This was a unique year. I’m certainly not looking for another year like that in the foreseeable future. 1991 was when we had 89 homicides. It took a long time to surpass that and I’m not looking at an upward trend.”
Top of mind for many people in the city this year is a record homicide rate, with 96 people having been murdered. While 10 of those deaths are attributable to a deadly van attack on Yonge Street in April, many have said more must be done to curb the violence.
Speaking with reporters, Saunders maintained that Toronto is still one of the safest cities in North America and that while police are always trying to keep up with best practices for crime prevention, some level of violence in a major urban centre is to be expected.
He said that dealing with street gangs is a “team sport” where members of a gang intimidate and threaten anyone who acts as a witness to a crime that another member of the gang has committed, making it more difficult for police to arrest violent criminals.
Saunders said the neighbourhood officer program has played a key role in building trust within neighbourhoods so that people better cooperate with the police.
“Getting intelligence in order to deal with local issues is the way we need to go forward in order to deal with this,” Saunders said. “I can tell you that there was a tremendous amount of work put into the relationship-building with all the segments of all the communities right across the city. You’ll see more of that in 2019 too. It’s absolutely necessary if we’re going to get it right.”
On that point, Saunders was also asked whether he has regrets about giving “false hope” to the LGBTQ community when he stood at a similar news conference a year ago – just weeks before the arrest of alleged serial killer Bruce McArthur – and declared that there was no serial killer targeting the gay community.
While he acknowledged that there were “lessons learned,” Saunders insisted that the force took seriously the disappearances of several men, disappearances that had led to years of speculation within the LGBTQ community that a killer was targeting them.
“I would say that there are a lot of lessons learned,” Saunders said. “The Toronto Police Service, we knew that something stunk, which is why we put resources in long before the apprehension of Bruce McArthur. In fact not only did we put resources in and do countless judicial authorizations, we put in high-level resources – we put in homicide investigators – long before a crime was determined.”
Still, Saunders acknowledged that there is more work to do to build bridges with the LGBTQ community.
“I think we have moved forward and I think we’re moving in the right direction,” he said. “I’m not going to say that we’re where we need to be. What I like about this organization is the desire to want to get it right.
“When we talk about the modernization plan, we talk about it being community-centric, and when we talk about community, that means everybody. So in order to get that right, it’s the ability to sit down at the table and having those conversations with all segments of the city to figure out what we need to do to enhance our relationships.”
In a tumultuous year, Saunders described the close proximity of the van attack and the Danforth shooting as his low point.
“When we had two mass casualty incidents in such a short period of time, I think that was a game changer,” Saunders said. “I think that many members of the community had some grave concerns. It’s one thing when you’re dealing with the gun play, it’s another when you’re walking down the street and looking over your shoulder or you’re sitting at a restaurant with family and friends and the next thing you have this.”
“When you had two of them back-to-back, the public had some concerns and still has some concerns about ‘is the city safe?’”
Saunders said the statistics indicate that Toronto is still one of the safest cities in North America and the majority of those who die in gun violence are engaged in a “high-risk lifestyle.” However he acknowledged that the violence this past year has shaken Torontonians’ perception of the city they live in.
“The general public really felt stung by back-to-back mass casualties and it’s still there, so that was something I had great concern with and I still have concern with that,” he said.
While Saunders said that crime has increased according to most major indicators, there were still bright spots in policing throughout the year.
“Throughout the year, despite everything that happened, our members have truly done outstanding things,” Saunders said. “They’ve rescued people from drowning in an elevator, they prevented suicides, they’ve rescued people and pets from freezing water, they’ve brought shoes to homeless people.
“They’ve supported families by purchasing groceries. They’ve walked into gun fights, knife fights, saved lives and continued to arrest when necessary.”