In the early 1980s, when inner city crime was soaring in many large metropolitan areas, a pair of American sociologists concocted what they dubbed the “broken windows” theory of policing and community safety, which held, roughly, that if municipal and law enforcement officials sweat the small stuff — graffiti, loitering, broken windows, etc. — the big stuff would take care of itself.
There were many explanations for what caused violent crime rates to plunge in the ensuing years, and it’s certainly true the reasons were far more complex than the magical thinking that lurks at the heart of the broken windows school. Yet this outlook, which is fundamentally conservative and, proved to be highly influential, informed all sorts of municipal decisions, from cleaning up subway cars to launching countless community policing programs, many of which gave law enforcement agencies license to harass racialized young people.
All of which is to say that Mayor John Tory had a choice of symbolic conservative cure-alls to, uh, address the wave of crime that prompted his decision, announced yesterday, to hire 200 new cops and administer a $48.3 million vitamin injection into the hide of the perennially sullen Toronto Police Service.
He could, for example, have declared that he was going to shovel a whole lot more money into erasing the most visible signs of accumulated neglect on our city streets (we got a very short-lived blitz instead). Or he could have hired new security guards or even transit cops to keep an eye on things on the TTC, from whence the surge of random violence has come.
In both cases, Tory would have made the blue folk happy. But he instead reached for that most tired of all quote-unquote solutions, which is to put more boots on the ground, as if a hiring binge — which can’t be done overnight — will put an end to whatever it is that ails us now.
Which is, well, ambiguous. Yes, lots of media attention directed at violent incidents on the TTC, and that has certainly got everyone’s attention. But the Toronto Police Service’s latest crime stats — which offer an incomplete snapshot — shows a sharp year-over-year drop in homicides and shootings, not much change in the rate of assaults and sexual assaults compared to the past five years and, get this, a long-term decline in property crimes except for car theft, which is way up.
Basically, what Tory has done is serve up a housewarming gift for the new police chief.
Let’s consider a few of the other head-scratchers with this move. In the past two years, city council has debated and then approved the establishment of a new form of emergency response — specialized, non-police teams called in to deal with people in the throes of emotional crisis or mental distress.
For years, the police service itself has complained that uniformed cops spend more time dealing with mental health calls than almost any other task — tens of thousands per year. Amidst the George Floyd protests and calls to defund the police, an unlikely point of consensus emerged between the police and those treating individuals with mental health and addiction problems, which is that crisis intervention teams led by trained psychiatric nurses should become the first responders.
Tory, who frequently (and I believe genuinely) talks about the impoverishment of mental health services, supported the creation of the new so-called 211 service, dubbed the Toronto Community Crisis Service, last March.
How quickly we forget.
It remains to be seen how Tory’s opening gambit augers for the 2023 budget deliberations. There’s no question this 4.3% bump to the police budget will make everything else more difficult. The city is entering this year’s budget Olympics with a deeper than usual shortfall, and Tory himself has called on the feds and Queen’s Park to provide a bail-out so he doesn’t have to sell a property tax hike to Toronto’s entitled homeowners.
Surely if the police need a 4.3% hike to address what’s being sold as a violent crime wave, the other departments that support community safety and well-being (parks, recreation, libraries, housing, etc., etc.) deserve a similar increase. After all, if what we’re seeing is more than just a series of random crimes, then it makes sense for council to take a holistic approach by considering the other factors that contribute to the erosion of the city’s sense of security.
Perhaps the mayor and his budget chief will prove me wrong, but I’m guessing that the next chapter in this year’s budget saga won’t coalesce around a holistic approach. Rather, we will hear the political right call on departments to do “more with less” and distinguish between “must-haves and nice-to-haves” — in other words, all the normal-course BS that our leaders deploy to justify their desire to shield homeowners from the burden of adequate taxation.
More than anything else, though, what I see here is Tory reverting to, well, the mean, which is to say the fundamentally conservative world-view that he managed to conceal earlier in his mayoralty, but which has been cast overboard now that he and Doug Ford have figured out how they can work in harmonic alignment for the balance of their respective terms.
I’m always tempted to ask why Tory hasn’t read the room. But the fact is that he has.