After a massive investigation involving 20 full-time officers and backed by a $50,000 reward, Toronto police have made nine arrests in the shooting death of Jane Creba, the 15-year-old who was caught in the crossfire of a gun battle on a busy shopping street on Boxing Day.
To no one’s surprise, the suspects have all been identified as “members or affiliates” of street gangs.
Creba’s was the death that galvanized a city, that made people demand action against street gangs, but it wasn’t the first tragic death of a young person in Toronto in the escalating gun violence there.
There have been tragedies aplenty. There have been innocent victims, caught in the crossfire.
Last week, when police announced the arrests, they were forced to defend themselves against the charge that what made this particular tragedy worthy of a $50-million investigation was that Creba was white.
Police chief Bill Blair vehemently rejected this suggestion.
“Absolutely not,” he said. “The race of the victim, quite frankly, is not relevant. The fact that an innocent person lost her life in a senseless display of gunfire on our downtown street was a strong incentive in this investigation …”
But there are those who point to the death of Livvette Moore, another innocent young woman who was killed in an equally senseless display of gunfire in a North York nightclub last year, and ask why there was no reaction from the police, the city, or the country to match the great public outrage at Creba’s death.
Moore’s murder has not gone uninvestigated; a 10-member task force has been assigned to the still-unsolved case. But this doesn’t compare to the resources that were spent on the Creba investigation.
Why not? Homicide inspector Brian Raybould ridicules the notion that race plays any part.
“The victim is the victim; we investigate them all.”
Raybould admits that more resources went into the Creba case, but in his view, race was never the issue.
“Why did we put more into it? Because we have gangs of hoodlums firing off high-powered weapons on Yonge Street on Boxing Day that was covered in people. This is a case that has to be solved.”
But then wasn’t the Prestige Palace “covered in people” the night Moore was killed?
And when 11-year-old Tamara Carter was shot in the face on a city bus in December 2004, wasn’t that bus full of people too?
It’s hard to ignore the fact that both the Prestige Palace and the Finch bus were mainly full of black people, whereas Yonge Street on Boxing Day had a mixed, but predominantly white, crowd.
Former homicide detective Mark Mendelson told the Toronto Star: “For anybody to suggest that race plays a part in the amount of attention, intensity, funding, manpower of a murder investigation is completely ill-informed. We don’t look at the colour of the victim. It’s a murder, and your job is to solve a murder.”
A 2003 report by the Ontario Human Rights Commission found Toronto police engaged “extensively” in racial profiling, particularly among blacks and aboriginals.
Even with the best of intentions, it’s unlikely that in the ensuing years the force has stamped out profiling, and is now able to guarantee that its investigations are unaffected by race.
But racism on the part of individual police officers is not the whole picture.
No doubt there are many good officers on the Toronto force who are neither racist nor ignorant, and whose work isn’t marred by stereotypical notions of race.
But they operate within a larger system, which is racist at its core.
The press and the public were shocked by Creba’s death and demanded action.
People were shocked at Moore’s death too, and the shooting of Carter, but the cries for action were louder for a white girl murdered in a shopping district than for a black woman killed in a nightclub, or a black child shot on a bus bound for North York.
Political response to the Creba’s death was dismal. With the public waking up to the fact that 50 people a year die of gun violence in Toronto, the only solutions anyone seemed to consider were tougher mandatory minimum sentences for gun crimes, and tougher controls on handguns “from the US.”
A few facts: all borders leak, so long as there are gangs there will be guns, mandatory minimum sentences don’t reduce crime, improved social circumstances do reduce crime.
The only place gangs grow better than in poor neighborhoods is in prisons. Get-tough-on-crime gimmicks, like longer mandatory minimums, are great election fodder, but as policy they are worthless.
The real solution to gang violence is no mystery. Gangs flourish in ghettos, fed by racism, poverty, and unemployment. The best way to get rid of them is to destroy their habitat.
If we have the will to end racism, we have the means to end the violence.
Al Pope won the 2002 Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon. His novel,
Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.