Under the gun: Keeping U.S. guns off Toronto's streets

August 4, 2011

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(WBEZ/Robert Wildeboer)
Toronto’s anti-violence police unit spends Saturday looking for guns on the city’s streets.

A few years ago, Toronto, Ontario had a spike in murders, and the public wouldn't stand for it. They demanded an end to the violence. One solution was a new police unit called TAVIS, which stands for Targeted Anti-Violence Intervention Strategies. We headed out on a Saturday night with the TAVIS unit as they try to get guns -- often American ones -- off the streets.

Saturday is the busiest night for policing but that's good news to a group of aggressive cops who are members of the TAVIS team.

These officers are being sent to the most impoverished neighborhoods in the city. They're not going to be getting cats out of trees. They're looking for guns.

Sgt. Mike Ferry's team is going to one of the most notorious areas in Toronto known by the main intersection: Jane and Finch.

“Tonight we're being deployed into the 31 division area,” Sgt. Ferry said.  “I guess within the past few months there have been several shootings in the division.”

Jane and Finch is about 15 miles from the city center.

Jane runs north-south and is lined for miles with enormous low-income and public housing projects.

Fifth in a series

The cities of Chicago and Toronto are the same size. Chicago has about 450 murders a year. Toronto? About 60. In the series, Under the Gun: Murder in Chicago and Toronto, WBEZ’s criminal and legal affairs reporter Robert Wildeboer asks: Why?

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There are also maze-like townhouse complexes that Sgt. Ferry navigates in the dark, slowly looking at all the residents while he sips coffee.

“We do have a very diverse representation of different cultures in these buildings,” Sgt. Ferry said.

This part of Toronto is a huge swath of poverty. Tourists are as likely to come here as they are to go to Chicago's Englewood neighborhood.

Many of the residents here are recent immigrants from all over, though large portions are from Africa and the Caribbean.

Sgt. Ferry drives around looking for potential trouble and running plates. Turns out, proactive policing involves a lot of checking plates.

“You're looking to see if the vehicles been registered properly, if in fact the person driving the vehicle is the registered owner, if the registered owner is licensed, if they're up on charges, up on bail, that type of thing should come back,” he said.

One of the teams pulls a car over in front of one of the large buildings on Jane and Sgt. Ferry rushes to provide backup.

The registered owner is a woman but there's a man driving. The driver doesn't have a license and the officers think he's giving them a fake name. Police Constable John Sianos tries to convince him to come clean.

 “Well, you can have an extra charge of obstruct added or you can be honest with us,” Constable Sianos said.

“…The driver's been lying to my colleagues here about his identity.  After an investigation we discovered who he was and there's some house arrest so he's breaching his conditions so he's arrestable.”

They arrest the driver and he's got a gun charge in his history, so Constable Sianos searches the vehicle and finds a whole lot of alcohol but no gun.

“It's exciting when you get one, it's good to get one off the street, or multiple off the street,” Constable Sianos said.

But the last time Sgt. Sianos got a gun in a car stop was six months ago. That seems like a long time given his unit’s mission.

 “Our team has got one recently as recently as a few weeks ago,” said Sgt. Mark Hayward, also in TAVIS.  When asked if he recently confiscated an illegal firearm, he responded: “Me personally?  Not, geez, when was the last time I got a gun off the streets?  It's been a while.”

Last year, the Toronto police pulled 715 illegal guns off the street.

By contrast, the Chicago Police Department seized 8,000 13,000 in a year.

A more grim statistic: The last time a Toronto police officer was shot and killed was in 1994. In that same time period, 19 Chicago police officers have been shot and killed.

On Jane street, the TAVIS team heads south to Chalkfarm, the name given to four enormous buildings near the 401, Toronto's main highway.

“It's known for its gang activity.  It's known for high criminality,” Sgt. Ferry said.

Even though the residents of these buildings and neighborhoods are poor, and make no mistake, these are poor neighborhoods -- residents say the same thing: they feel safe, and they don't have stories of shootings and death.

One can't help but compare that to Englewood where almost every resident –young and old – can point just down the block to where friends or neighbors have died.

A group of eight officers heads into one of the Chalkfarm buildings. They check in with security. The officers go through the building to question people in the halls and run their id and make sure they live there.

Lots of residents say they don't like this kind of policing, they say they shouldn't have to be bothered by police when they're not doing anything wrong.

Later in his squad car, Sgt. Hayward muses on the balancing act they're trying to perform. “The goal is to keep these buildings safe, right, keep the community safe so.  Unfortunately people don't walk around with signs saying 'I'm a good guy' or 'I'm a bad guy' or 'I live here' or 'I don't live here' right so it's incumbent upon us then to make those inquiries to find out.”

“You know and we try to make it as quick and painless as possible, if the person lives there were not there to harass the residents, right?  We don't want to alienate ourselves from the residents, right?”

Driving back to the station Sgt. Hayward radios the team to call it a night: “Okay guys, I guess that's the 5-5 and that'll be a tango.”

For the whole shift, this 11-member team logged three arrests and 50 contact cards with information on people they question.

Sgt. Hayward says that's a busy night and a good night. He says the contact cards are important. “You know we get two guys in a car, we'll do contact cards and then we link those two people together and one of them might be a gang-banger and the other guy is a suspected gang-banger, but we start stopping these guys enough together we have reason to believe now we can link them as part of that gang.  That's how we track these gangs.”

Sgt.Hayward says his unit pulls a gun off the street every couple months. And for the guns they do get, Sgt. Hayward and many other cops point an accusing finger back at the U.S.

David Miller was mayor of Toronto in 2005 when the city had 79 murders in what was called the year of the gun. “When I was mayor, very broadly speaking, about a third of the guns used in crimes in this city came from the United States so there's a flood of guns over the border all the time,” Miller said.

The TAVIS police unit was one part of his administration's response to the violence. Miller proudly identifies himself as a liberal who would like to ban all handguns in Canada. He says the availability of American guns in Toronto is due to lax gun laws in the U.S.

“It is unbelievable to us that the Americans have allowed these laws which prevent law enforcement agencies from doing their job,” Miller said.

The former mayor says the U.S.is exporting crime and terror to Canada. “Americans need to examine themselves a little bit and say, you know what, this isn't just a debate about the NRA, this is a debate about our obligations as a country to our neighbors and friends, and people in Mexico and Canada are murdered all the time because of those lax gun laws with American guns, that's the truth, American handguns.  It's the truth and it's a truth that needs to be confronted.”