Police patrols find a 'weird' calm

http://www.thestar.com/News/GTA/article/462662AARON LYNETT/TORONTO STARIt's just after midnight on the kind of sultry summer evening that draws bands of thugs onto the Grassways stoops to settle scores, deal drugs, swap guns and intimidate.But tonight the neighbourhood is abandoned.The few working lights in this Jane and Finch housing complex, a high-crime maze of low-rise buildings, cast shadows on an empty basketball court, an unfilled swimming pool, a darkened archway. The main door to one of its buildings, locks jimmied free, creaks open to reveal stretches of grimy, desolate hallway.And except for the booming strains of gospel music emanating from somewhere, the hum of air conditioners is the only sound from the few hundred people who live here. It's an ominous and foreboding scene."It's a ghost town," Sgt. Scott Purches says."It's kind of weird. The ones who usually stay out, causing trouble – they're gone. It's been quiet like this for two weeks."The whole city, all 17 police divisions, has been relatively quiet since the start of the year. From murder to shootings, robberies to sexual assault, violent crime is down 18 per cent, compared to the same six months in 2007, police say. Last year at this time there were 40 homicides; this year, there are 30.City-wide calls for police service have plummeted in some high-crime areas, especially in recent weeks, police say. Community workers, such as staff at the Jane/Finch Community and Family Centre, are sensing positive change in their area.In Regent Park, prostitutes who normally work Gerrard St. are reeling from a beefed-up police presence. They're angry, they say, because it means a hit in business.Dressed in a thigh-high skirt and high heels at 2 a.m. on River St., one woman, who did not want to give her name, said the only upside to declining crime is that, "I don't see as many pimps around.""At least that's good," she said.According to statistics, Toronto is no longer under siege, having largely put behind it the violence that began with 2005's summer of the gun, which reached a fever pitch when a stray bullet hit student Jane Creba that Boxing Day.That's despite two recent high-profile random homicides, the murder of John O'Keefe as he strolled along Yonge St. and the killings of two men on Richmond St. W., near Trinity Bellwoods Park.So could it be that Police Chief Bill Blair is winning the war on violent crime?"The numbers are positive," he says. "But there's still a lot of work to do."He credits the Toronto Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy with the decline. Better known as TAVIS, the anti-crime program was introduced three years ago and has received $15 million in provincial funding.It's helped police "focus on those who are most dangerous," Blair says, such as gang members, drug dealers and trespassers.It has also uncovered lockers stuffed with guns, doors perpetually jimmied open and two separate, 2-kilometre swaths of the city deemed to contain Toronto's lion's share of summer crime.To pre-empt any violence this year, Blair has flooded each of these neighbourhoods with 16 additional uniformed TAVIS officers until Labour Day.A hybrid of hard-nosed cop and community builder, they exercise discretion, not zero tolerance.But they also reach out to the community. On a recent night at a Jane St. restaurant, officers help the owner shut down, when a throng of thugs put pressure on him, quietly, to stay open.Equipped with guns, batons and TAVIS cards, which they press into the hands of local residents, the officers persistently introduce themselves."Normally we just don't have time to stop. We're just passing through on the way to a scene," Purches says. "This is getting us to slow down."Is crime slowing down? A York University criminologist says the police numbers may not be telling the whole story.Research shows that when officers conduct projects, they find crime, says James Sheptycki. So the stats go up.He's shocked to hear that this time, the opposite is occurring. "This runs contrary to everything we know," he says. "I would take those claims with a big grain of salt."Independent scrutiny, he says, is imperative, to know what's really going on.Whatever it is, this night it appears to be working.Static, not sirens, creeps over Purches' radio in a way that is almost baffling to some of the officers assigned to work with him at Jane and Finch, but not quite.They know their presence is keeping drug dealers away from a lookout point just off Jane St. and stops sellers from trespassing in neighbourhood buildings.They also know it cuts down on the kind of crime that goes hand in hand with drug deals – homicides at Jane and Finch have decreased 83 per cent this year over last, police say.Homicides in Regent Park are down 66 per cent. Robberies, auto thefts and sexual assaults in both areas have fallen between 20 and 30 per cent this year, according to police."We're interrupting the natural economy of the drug trade," Purches says.Unfortunately, dealers will wait it out, work at different times or go elsewhere, like Brampton or Scarborough."It's like squeezing Jell-O in your palm," Purches says. "It oozes out your fingers."While some officers say it will take stamina to keep criminals away, Blair hopes residents will begin to reclaim their neighbourhoods by the time the 10-week TAVIS initiative ends.For now, the ones committing the crimes have their own strategy. They're keeping a close eye on the police. When two squad cars pull up at the Grassways entrance around 1 a.m. recently, faces emerge soundlessly in overhead windows.Hushed voices breathe into cellphones. And in the three minutes it takes for a group of officers to walk from the front of the complex to a noisy band of teens, all that remains when they arrive are bikes strewn on the sidewalk.For the officers, they're content to have broken up the party. But for locals like Sheldon Roberts, who was dining there, police couldn't be more of an imposition."This is harassment," he says, throwing down a chicken wing, when police ask him for ID and discover he is recently out of jail, although not in breach of his bail.In the last two weeks, since TAVIS started patrolling the area, Roberts has been questioned "almost every day," he says. And he doesn't like it."This has got to stop," he says. "I mean it."

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