Content warning: This article discusses police violence against Black and Indigenous people, and briefly mentions street harassment and racial slurs.
The day a first-year U of T student survived a brutal stabbing on the TTC this January, I was on the next streetcar on the same line. I vividly recall how my streetcar diverted lanes due to what was, at the time, announced as an “incident” ahead of us. When I read the news about the stabbing later on, I suffered for a while from a form of victim mentality; given the proximity of the student’s streetcar and mine, I felt powerless over the idea that the victim could have easily been me.
This is why I momentarily felt reassured when I saw the Toronto Police Service’s (TPS) announcement that it was increasing police presence in the TTC to help address the recent rise in violence in Toronto’s transit system. In their published statement on January 26, the TPS Board Chair emphasized that “[the] TTC must be safe for everyone without exception.”
Although the TPS decided to halt the deployment of extra police officers in the TTC earlier this week, we must still ask why it believed higher police presence was an appropriate initial response to the rise in violence on the TTC. As a person of a race and gender that has not been historically antagonized by the police, I found the Board Chair’s mandate was relieving. However, to many Black and Indigenous Torontonians, who have historically been — and continue to be — harmed by police, the increase in police presence may have had the opposite effect.
The TPS announced that increased police presence has led to 314 arrests and more than 220 referrals to mental health services and social support for people in need, but the question remains: what were those arrests for, and what specific social support services did police actually provide? Not only does the public deserve to know the efficacy of the heightened patrolling, but the TPS must also remind itself that this decision was a mere band-aid solution to a bigger problem. The truth is, Toronto needs real solutions to help address the rise in violence — solutions that don’t further harm people of colour.
Police violence in Toronto
On January 30, several days after the TPS reported its decision to increase police presence on public transit, a group of six councillors of the City of Toronto sent a letter to former Mayor John Tory addressing the announcement. They made three critical points in their letter: they questioned the cost of additional police services, the police’s approach to racialized communities, and the capability of police to de-escalate non-violent situations.
Earlier today, some of my colleagues and I sent a letter to the Mayor, asking questions about last week's announcement of police being deployed on the TTC and if alternatives were considered. pic.twitter.com/bzlkwtRYhF
— Alejandra Bravo (@BravoDavenport) January 30, 2023
While the letter was dismissed by the former mayor in a tweet that accused the councillors of playing politics, the questions the councillors asked are still integral, and opened the floor to discussions on what increased police presence on the TTC could really mean for Torontonians. The letter raised questions about how the TPS planned to increase police presence without repeating past discriminatory policing practices that have targeted Black and Indigenous Torontonians.
I'm focused on working with the TTC, Toronto Police, and City of Toronto staff on solutions that will help keep people safe. It's disappointing that some councillors would rather play politics than work together on immediate and long-term solutions to violence and crime.
— John Tory (@JohnTory) January 30, 2023
A 2020 report by the Ontario Human Rights Commission confirmed that Toronto police officers were disproportionately more likely to charge, shoot, or kill Black people than other Torontonians. Although they made up only 8.8 per cent of Toronto’s population in 2016, Black Torontonians represented over 40 per cent of people charged with obstruction of justice. As of 2020, Indigenous peoples were also 1.6 times over-represented in police enforcement actions relative to their presence in Toronto.
Data like these makes it evident that the increased presence of police may threaten Black and Indigenous peoples’ sense of safety and security when travelling in Toronto. As such, the TPS’s decision to increase police presence on the TTC directly contradicts its earlier statement that “[the] TTC must be safe for everyone without exception.”
In 2022, the TPS published Race and Identity-Based Data Collection (RBDC) Findings with data from 2020. This initiative revealed that Black people are significantly overrepresented as targets of police officers’ strip searches and uses of force. The TPS has emphasized its plans to address the disproportionately high levels of force that police officers have used against Black and Indigenous peoples, through listening, governance, communication, and mandatory procedural training. However, if the public is to trust the TPS’s ability to keep Toronto safe, the public must actively see the TPS execute its plan to address the high levels of force used against people of colour.
The TPS must be transparent about how the findings from the RBDC have been factored into its decision to increase police officers on the TTC. To effectively address the rise in violence without further harming people of colour, the TPS needs to actively communicate with Black and Indigenous communities and hear their concerns. Contrary to what former Mayor John Tory may believe, questioning the TPS’s decision to increase police presence is not just political, but essential, and it is never too late to do it.
In my perspective, these are not unreasonable expectations, but overdue feedback, since the TPS’ RBDC report testifies that it will directly work with communities to further develop its actions.
What are the alternatives to overpolicing?
As we’ve already seen, given its track record, there is ample reason for the public to question the TPS’ capability to help people who are in need. I believe that increasing police presence was the wrong approach to addressing the rise in violence on the TTC because that decision will harm Toronto’s most vulnerable and marginalized populations.
The City of Toronto has been implementing pilot Toronto Community Crisis Service programs, which divert mental health crisis calls for 911 without police involvement. Given the efficacy of the pilots — 78 per cent of crisis calls in the past six months were dealt with sans police — the city and the TPS need to divulge how the cost of crisis response workers compares to the cost of police officers. This information is important, given that the TPS has halted its increase in police presence on public transit due to a budget deficit.
We need increased transparency
To be frank, since starting school at U of T in 2021, I have never been more scared in my life to walk through a city or use its transit system. Since 2021, I have been physically harassed in the streets, called racial slurs in the TTC and, most recently, chased down a busy street in broad daylight. However, even within the wide range of places and people that have given me such fear, we can see that there is no one solution that fits all of those problems. The TPS should stop treating its decision to increase police presence as the only solution to the recent increase in violence, or even the optimal one.
Toronto needs to provide more than a band-aid solution to the swelling concerns around how Toronto’s police are currently failing the city’s racialized communities. For the present, we at least deserve to know whether the increase of police officers in public transit has actually helped alleviate the violent crime rates on the TTC. In the end, I do not want to feel safe at the expense of others’ safety.
Eleanor Park is a second-year student at Trinity College studying English and religion. She is an Associate Comment Editor at The Varsity.