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E-BLAST: Getting to the Root of Community Safety

I know that safety has been top of mind for folks in Don Valley North and all of Toronto as of late. We've seen troubling trends across the city this year, especially on our transit system, and it's made many of us feel increasingly unsafe in our neighbourhoods. To help address these growing concerns in our community, I have partnered with City Staff and Toronto Police Services to host a Community Safety Town Hall this coming Tuesday, April 18 at the Fairview Library Theatre at 7:00 PM. I hope to see many of you there.

In advance of our town hall, I want to talk about what we need to do to build safe communities. The truth of the matter is, we need to tackle a wide range of social issues to build truly safe communities. The results of this work aren't always seen right away, but the long-term impacts are immeasurable. Let's take a look at the areas we need to work on to make our city safe for current and future residents alike.

Whenever I talk about safety, I need to bring up the determinants of health, as determined by Public Health Canada: Determinants of health are a range of factors that influence the health status of individuals or populations. At every stage of life, health is determined by complex interactions between social and economic factors, the physical environment and individual behaviour. They cannot exist in isolation from each other. The 12 determinants of health as follows:

  1. Income and social status

  2. Social support networks

  3. Education and literacy

  4. Employment/working conditions

  5. Social environments

  6. Physical environments

  7. Personal health practices and coping skills

  8. Healthy child development

  9. Biology and genetic endowment

  10. Health services

  11. Gender

  12. Culture

After reading that list, you're probably thinking "Of course all of these things have something to do with my physical and mental well-being." Now, I want you to go back and read it again in the context of your life during the pandemic. Were your personal determinants of health negatively impacted during that time? Finally, I want you to read that list once more while thinking of just how much the pandemic disrupted those factors for the most vulnerable persons in our community.

We cannot talk about the safety issues we're experiencing now without discussing determinants of health. When more of those factors are met with adequate support and care, people are better able to live fulsome and healthy lives. When those factors are neglected or actively harmed, many resort to anger, anti-social behaviour, crime, and more. I'm highlighting this concept right at the start because I want to make it clear that a truly safe and healthy community is not going to come from an increased number of police. We were making progress on wrapping our heads around this here in Toronto a few years back. Of course, the pandemic presented us with new challenges and severely impacted every determinant of health I mentioned above: personal, social, and economic. As we work to tackle our present community safety issues and recover our transit system, shared spaces, and entire city, we mustn't lose sight of all the work that needs to be done beyond policing. We also need to acknowledge the ways in which police have made certain communities feel less safe, especially in Black and racialized communities and in persons experiencing mental health crises. During my time on the Toronto Police Services Board, we began an exercise to transform and modernize our police force. This included reducing the number of officers through the use of technology, working with mental health advocates to learn safe de-escalation tactics for persons in crisis, and implementing a policy to end unaccountable carding (the practice of stopping people, particularly Black and racialized young men, to record their personal information for no stated purpose and with no ability for the carded individual to retrieve their information). This transformation gradually reduced the number of officers in our growing city from over 5,200 to about 4,900 by the time the pandemic hit.

This year, I supported the hiring of 200 new police officers when we adopted the City budget in March. We are in a very different place now than we were before the pandemic, and response times to emergency calls were climbing in a concerning fashion. We also needed the additional officers to deal with the increases in crime that tend to happen in times of economic downturn, and to deal with the immediate safety threats on our transit system. However, an increased police presence is not going to magically make our city safe again. We need to keep doing the ground work to create healthier communities, and we need to continue working on police reform to stamp out the systemic bias in policing. Some important pieces of police reform and de-tasking that are currently in progress include:

This work is ongoing and is essential in creating a safe city for everyone, especially communities that have been historically harmed by police.

Our new Toronto Community Crisis Service is providing non-police emergency response to those experiencing mental health crises. Our police force will help us with safety on our streets and in our subways in the short term, but we must always remember that list of the 12 determinants of health. We must dedicate ourselves as a community to investing in all of the points on that list for the health and safety of everyone. We know that we're all dealt different hands in life, but your ability to succeed should not come strictly from birthright. We need to build in opportunity and fairness so that everyone has access to the financial and social supports they need to thrive. All orders of government need to commit investment to social supports and constantly evaluate if these are working.

We need to acknowledge the challenges our children have faced going to school through the pandemic. Not every child had access to the same supports at home. We need to insist that our Province is fully invested in catching kids up. We also need to re-energize the community spaces that needed to be closed down during the pandemic, especially our community centres, libraries, and parks. These are the keys to a healthy big-city environment, both socially and physically. The more we animate these spaces, the safer we all will be.

Animating neighbourhood spaces like our local parks helps build safe communities. When we invest in our communities, and especially our young people, from the get-go, we set them up for successful and healthy lives that won't turn to violence and crime. All of these investments in fortifying the determinants of health cost money, heaven knows, but they cost nowhere near as much as trying to keep a city safe through policing alone. As we come together as a community next week to discuss safety, let's work together to identify the areas where we need to push hardest to build complete, healthy, and safe communities across Toronto.


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