Content warning: This article discusses police violence and mentions anti-Black racism.

On January 26, the Toronto Police Service (TPS) announced that it would deploy over 80 additional officers throughout the city’s public transit system in response to recent incidents of violence. The following day, the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) announced that it would deploy an additional 80 management staff to conduct health and safety audits.

On January 27, a U of T student came forward as the victim of a violent incident on the 510 streetcar at Spadina and Sussex. Shortly afterward, on January 31, senior administration sent an email to the U of T community that contained tips for staying safe on public transit and offered a message of support. 

In interviews with The Varsity, U of T community members expressed concerns about the City of Toronto and the university’s responses to violence on public transit. U of T scholars who research violence, crime, and the police emphasized that funding social services — rather than increasing police presence — is the key to addressing violence on the TTC.

U of T community responds to violence

The TPS justified the increased police presence on the TTC based on “a recent spike in violent crimes over the past few weeks.” 

In an interview with The Varsity, Jillian Sunderland — a sociology PhD student studying the intersections of violence, power, gender, and race — said that there is a distinction between police reports of violence and media coverage of violence. She suggested that the perception of increased violence may be a result of heightened reporting on violent incidents in traditional and social media.

The Toronto Star found that the TTC reported 451 violent incidents in the first half of 2022;  if this trend continued, the TTC would report 900 violent incidents by the end of the year. In an interview with The Varsity, Sunderland cited a recent Passage article that noted that, although reports of violent incidents on the TTC increased by 18 per cent since 2021, media coverage of TTC violence increased by 300 per cent during the same period.

Sunderland stressed the importance of examining the social causes of violence. She highlighted that violent incidents tend to correlate with drastic cuts to social services such as the TTC. On January 9, the TTC revealed its 2023 operating budget, which proposes nine per cent less service than in pre-pandemic years and a 10-cent fare hike.

U of T community members are involved in lobbying for more consistent and affordable public transit. On February 2, the TTCriders — a grassroots collective with a mission to make public transit accessible and equitable — held a day of action. Community organizers, Scarborough residents, and UTSC students gathered at Scarborough Centre Station to protest the cuts to transit that the budget proposes.

At the event, Scarborough Campus Students’ Union Vice-President External Thai Dhillon Higashihara spoke about how TTC service cuts and fare hikes would impact students. In an interview with The Varsity, Higashihara said that increasing TTC service would help reduce violence by reducing the amount of time commuters spend waiting for trains or buses at night. According to a 2015 survey, 59 per cent of UTSC students use local transit to travel to campus. However, Higashihara feels that “Scarborough is often ignored in terms of TTC access.”

In 2018, The Varsity reported that over 75 per cent of U of T students are commuters. Recently, some commuter students told The Varsity that they changed their commuting habits after hearing about recent violent incidents on the TTC. Juliana Sarychev, a third-year student, normally takes the 510 streetcar on her commute to campus. Recently, she has chosen to walk instead. When she needs to use the TTC, she wrote to The Varsity that she keeps her headphones on so that people won’t disturb her, but she doesn’t listen to anything so that she can stay alert.

Maarib Kirmani Haseeb and Emilie Nero — third-year students and the commuter commissioner and commuter co-chair, respectively, of the Victoria University Students’ Administrative Council — wrote to The Varsity that they now avoid travelling alone on the TTC, especially at night.

Increased police presence

During a January 26 press conference at TPS headquarters, Chief Myron Demkiw said, “I know that our presence on the subways, streetcars, and buses of this city helps to make the operators and users of the transit system feel safer and more comfortable.”

In an email to The Varsity, Todd Foglesong — a fellow-in-residence studying crime, violence, and criminal justice at the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy — wrote that, based on his knowledge of England, France, and Germany, police presence can make some people feel safe while making others feel unsafe. As such, he explained, introducing more police officers in these European countries resulted in some people feeling uncomfortable using public transit.

Sunderland explained to The Varsity that white communities are more likely than racialized communities to view the police as a source of safety. She cited a 2022 study that found that Toronto police are 1.6 times more likely to use force against a Black person, compared to a white person.

Sunderland added that the police may escort people experiencing homelessness out of TTC stations and vehicles. While this may make some people feel safer, the TTC offers crucial shelter during the winter months. “Fundamentally, I don’t think that you can have policies that make some people safe while increasing the risk of violence and unsafety for other people,” she said.

In an interview with The Varsity, Julius Haag — an assistant professor at UTM’s Department of Sociology whose research includes examining issues of policing and police accountability —  said that he finds the City’s response to TTC violence troubling, given that these problems “stem from a lack of available programs and services for many of our most vulnerable residents.” However, he added that he doesn’t find the City’s decision surprising. Haag explained that municipal governments in North America often turn to the police in situations like these because doing so is “the quickest response and the one that will generate the most visibility.”

On January 9, the TPS board unanimously passed the 2023 TPS budget. The new budget increases the service’s funding by $48.3 million, bringing the 2023 TPS budget to just over $1.1 billion. Haag explained that the TPS will increase police presence on the TTC by paying off-duty TPS officers premium overtime pay. He also mentioned that the majority of the police budget goes toward officers’ salaries and benefits.

“Would that money not be better suited to supporting social services and community-based initiatives that serve the needs of our most vulnerable residents?” asked Haag, in reference to the increased police budget. Sunderland expressed a similar view, telling The Varsity that cities should invest in social programs that prevent violence instead of increasing policing budgets.

Next steps

In the provost’s January 31 email, the university wrote that the news of violence on the TTC may be distressing for U of T community members and added that the university offers supports for those “who are directly affected by emergency situations such as these.” The email also included links to safety resources compiled by the Community Safety Office and the TTC.

Some students who spoke to The Varsity suggested ways that the university could support commuter students. Sarychev said that professors could offer students the option to attend evening classes virtually if they feel unsafe commuting from campus at night. Additionally, Haseeb told The Varsity that she would like to see the university “[use] its power to encourage City officials to invest more in public transit.”

Sunderland told The Varsity that, while she appreciates the provost’s email, it advocated an individualist response, whereas violence on public transit is a systemic issue. She said that she would like to see the university partner with community grassroots organizations that are already working towards harm reduction, trauma-informed care, and protection against violence, such as Toronto Indigenous Harm Reduction.

However, Haag told The Varsity that change can start with the individual. He encouraged students to be more critical of the mainstream discourses around and approaches to complex social problems such as TTC violence.

With files from Alyanna Denise Chua.

Editor’s note (February 8, 2023): In a previous version of this article, The Varsity incorrectly interpreted a comment from Julius Haag as suggesting that data on an increase in violent TTC incidents did not exist. He meant that he had not personally seen the data, so the comment has been removed for clarity reasons.