John Chuckman

Following an unprecedented series of public shootings in Toronto, there is talk about stiffening penalties for having or using unlicensed handguns. In general, I support this idea, but my economics background reminds me of an important principle that applies: a fair probability of getting caught is always a greater deterrent than a stiff penalty alone. To confirm this intuitively, ask yourself about the impact on your highway-driving habits of a tripling of fines alone versus a tripling of the number of police patrolling highways enforcing existing fines.

The problem is, in Toronto, the probability of getting caught for the kind reckless, brutal crime we have experienced many times now is close to zero. The number of these psychotic killings in 2005, at 52, roughly equals Toronto’s typical annual number of murders over past decades. Virtually none of these crimes has been solved. So long as this remains the case, tougher penalties will be without effect.

The question arises whether Toronto’s police force is equipped or adequately experienced to deal with a problem that has characterized American cities for decades. I have no doubt there are things to be learned from American cities, but while American murder rates have declined in recent years, they remain high by Canadian standards.

The Boston Miracle sometimes is said to provide a template for solution, but the Boston Miracle is something of a myth. Boston’s violent crime, never high by American standards, did decline, but violent crime rates all over the U.S. declined steeply in the 1990s. Analysis credits several factors. One, policing in some American cities has become increasingly sophisticated, using computers and special techniques to focus resources, although clear evidence for the effectiveness of these remains to be seen. Two, emergency treatment of gunshot wounds in American urban hospitals after a couple of decades of savagery has become expert, and many being treated who might have died in the 1970s survived in the 1990s. Three, many of the young black men who would be candidates for shooting are now doing hard time in a swollen American prison system owing to harsh anti-crack cocaine laws and three-strike laws (a third felony conviction carrying a mandatory life sentence). Four, sophisticated statistical analysis shows an important role for the simple factor of more freely available abortion earlier coming available in American cities.

Analysis gives relatively small credit to the kind of programs being advocated for Toronto, particularly by the current mayor, in many ways the most ineffectual in the office since John Sewell. An interesting experiment is underway in Chicago with offenders being used to help educate others, but Chicago’s rate of homicide has already fallen tremendously since the 1990s from a combination of the factors cited above. The effects of the new program, yet to be analyzed, can only account for a change that sounds large in percentage terms because it is measured against a much reduced base.

Classic murder has a high rate of solution because family or friends typically are involved and motives are clear, but the kind of sudden murder by strangers Toronto now experiences always has a poor rate of solution in the absence of witnesses or others with special knowledge coming forward. The root problem to solving Toronto’s new class of murder is a lack of help or cooperation from the same black community that produces almost all of the victims and perpetrators.

The recent Boxing Day shooting on Yonge Street just north of Dundas, despite news hype, was no more horrifying than a long series of previous shootings – that on a TTC bus with about forty witnesses aboard, that on another bus blinding its driver, that on a subway platform, that at a large church funeral, or that in Dundas Square. They are all ghastly, and they remain unsolved.

There was a grotesque aspect, generally unnoted by the press, to the shooting at a church funeral. Police apparently arrived in force within a few minutes of the shooting. In some cases, they were greeted by shouting and spitting. Spitting on police arriving at a murder goes a rather long way to explaining the lack of help or cooperation.

Some will excuse such behavior by saying there is great mistrust of police in the black community. But as someone who grew up in a city with much higher crime and a far more corrupt police force than Toronto can imagine, I simply cannot accept it as a rational response even where legitimate grievances exist.

Jamaica, birth place for many in Toronto’s black community and, according to police, birth place for the gang culture now taking hold of the city, is an exceedingly violent country. With a population roughly the same as Metro Toronto’s, it has about 1200 murders a year, and likely this is an undercount. Jamaica also is home to some hateful social attitudes. A recent popular song there has words about burning alive a “chi chi man,” the Jamaican expression for a homosexual. So, too, a favored local swear word refers to a woman’s menses.

I don’t cite these unpleasant facts to deprecate Jamaica, but they make an important point about Toronto’s problem. I am almost exhausted of hearing and reading, after each of these gruesome murders, that it is somehow Toronto’s fault or Canada’s fault for not spending enough on social programs for the young men doing all the killing.

The truth is that murder rates for Toronto, except for the murders in this new special group, are at record lows. The city has been growing in size and in complexity with great diversity of population while its murders remain steady or shrink, again except for this special group of murders. A relatively small group of people are responsible, comprised of utterly ruthless and remorseless psychopaths. They are not poor people, typically using expensive automatic handguns and driving away from the scene in expensive vehicles.
Contrary to what some politicians say, I do not believe that such people are made by their surroundings. I find the mayor’s public question about how does a child get the hard eyes of a killer? hopeless melodrama. You can mistreat a child and produce a bully or a miserable person, but most people cannot be trained to kill in civilian life as though they were swatting flies. Human psychology is more resilient than that to mistreatment, otherwise survivors of the world’s great misfortunes like the Holocaust would be our most dangerous citizens. Psychopathy appears to be a natural phenomenon for a certain percent of any population. In this case, the psychopaths are of great use to the Jamaican drug gangs fighting over large profits.

Canada, in fact, is exceptionally generous to immigrants. Every immigrant receives free medical care, free public education, and subsidized college and university education; qualifies for employment insurance, daycare assistance, social welfare, and subsidized housing to the extent available. Except for public education, this generosity does not hold for immigrants to our neighbor, the United States. Even free public education is questionable since American public schools enjoy quality of facilities and teachers almost in direct proportion to the wealth of their neighborhoods. Poor immigrants generally go to miserable, desperate schools.

Earlier immigrants to Canada did not receive the same generous benefits. The harsh struggles of the Irish, European Jews, and the Chinese make today’s immigrant seem a relatively privileged person by comparison.

Prejudice, like superstition, exists everywhere, but Canada – and I think Toronto in particular – is today one of the most tolerant places in the world. Excessive complaints of racism in Canada represent either a lack of judgment or a form of reverse prejudice at work. I am reminded of the horrible, unjustified public charges of racism by one Jamaican woman some years ago against June Callwood, one of Canada’s most distinguished women and humanitarians. So, too, the unjustified invective hurled at former Toronto Police Chief Fantino, who is in fact an able, fair-minded, and dedicated public official.

Besides being a reverse form of racism, such angry, unjustified behavior is incitement to hatred and fear, tearing at the delicate fabric of society and contributing to distrust of public officials and institutions.

You may not believe that the kind of violent events we have seen in Toronto can cause decline in a great city, but my experience as a young man argues that it can, and I offer a few anecdotes which I think point to the destructive nature of what’s already happening. The wife of a couple living in North York takes an east-west bus each day in the direction of the city’s most troubled neighborhood. Recently, as she stood in line waiting with many others, a tall young man rushed up just as the bus arrived. He butted in front of all the people who had waited and took a seat. The woman of course very much felt inclined to speak to him, and in traditional Toronto she likely would have done so, but with all the instances of young black men pulling guns and shooting people she wisely refrained. When she mentioned the incident to her husband, the first thing he asked was whether she had confronted him. The idea of moving has entered their thoughts.

I sometimes answer questions from my first-year university students, who are mostly Chinese, regarding universities where they might best pursue particular programs. When I have mentioned York University, on more than one occasion I have received doubtful looks with expressions of concern about that part of the city. I explain that the university is not located in the city’s most troubled neighborhood although it is in the broad geographical area. I thought it especially striking that students from China would be so keenly aware of these problems. It is also sad that some of them have already written off York because of its location.

Many neighborhoods in many cities in the U.S. experienced a destructive phenomenon known as white flight during the late 1960s and 1970s, sometimes with whole blocks of for-sale signs going up and real estate prices collapsing in a neighborhood. Contrary to what some Canadians may believe, much of this was not based on prejudice, it was based on genuine fear of violent behavior. I knew a very liberal academic couple living in what had been a handsome old Detroit neighborhood. They were forced to leave their urban ideals behind after experiencing the terror of a young black man jumping from behind a tree one night with a gun.

Visitors to the United States will perhaps have noticed that virtually all street overpasses along expressways are caged in. This was not the case when I was young. The practice began when kids from black neighborhoods started rolling manhole covers and dropping them into traffic. As one newspaper writer noted at the time, a car struck may well have carried Mrs. Martin Luther King for all the thugs knew. It was just mindless violence.

The mindless violence arose as heavy black migration into the city from the rural South, a phenomenon known as the Great Black Migration starting about the 1930s, continued into the 1960s at a time when unskilled industrial-job opportunities started to decline. It was in the late 1960s that the rate of homicide exploded in the United States. There were some ups and downs in the 1970s and 1980s, but it wasn’t until the 1990s that the rate declined steeply. When data for these decades is segregated by race, as in Department of Justice statistics, virtually all the huge increases are by black Americans. White rates remained roughly where they were in the 1950s and 1960s, with a steady recent decline from a modest upswing in 1980.

Poor parenting and early school-leaving gave many young black males in the United States poor work skills, but they traditionally had been able still to find good-paying jobs in heavy manufacturing. With the decline of such industries in older American cities, new employment opportunities simply ceased to be there.

Toronto’s mayor recently called industry leaders together to extend special opportunities to black youth. I can only praise his effort in this one case, but it alone cannot go far for two reasons. First, Toronto is simply not a heavy manufacturing center. Compared to the miles of dense factories that once filled parts of Chicago or Detroit, Toronto is an almost purely middle-class city. It is a financial, retail, academic/artistic, and government-services city. There are limited enticing opportunities for unskilled young workers, and with the continued impact of globalization sending less-skilled jobs abroad, there likely will be fewer still in future.

Second, no normal job possibly can compete with the attractions of drug- and gun-running for at least some portion of young black males who have limited marketable skills and high levels of aggressive behavior. Sports and popular music are other potential careers, but the pool of serious athletic or musical talent is limited in any population, and the odds favoring success even for the talented in either of these arenas are tiny.

All this is to say, Toronto with its changed racial makeup will have an ongoing serious problem that requires ongoing special efforts, but all such efforts cost money, and Toronto right now, despite new infusions of money from other levels of government, has a half-billion dollar deficit. Stiff rises in taxation also help drive people to the suburbs.

A principle, sometimes called the dirty-window principle, came into vogue some years ago on American urban transit systems. The principle grew out of the observation that filthy or neglected windows, as in abandoned buildings, virtually invite vandalism. New York’s subway system used to allow graffiti to cover its trains entirely, the authorities taking the view that this merely reflected gritty urban reality and saved money on wasteful maintenance. New York’s approach to cleaning subway cars was changed owing to the dirty-window principle and the study of transit systems that had not allow graffiti to flourish and had suffered less serious vandalism and other crimes.

It only makes sense if you think about it. The sense of neglect and indifference represented by dirty, vandalized transit cars almost invites indifference to other crimes. Over time, the ante in the form of greater anti-social acts is raised. Official eyes keeping better watch on transit cars for vandalism act as a deterrent to other crime, just as many people resident in a neighborhood provide eyes to discourage crime, an observation made by Jane Jacobs many decades ago.

This principle very much applies to the situation in Toronto. Years ago it was widely recognized that the Jane-Finch corridor was starting to have some of the characteristics of America’s violent ghettos. There wasn’t a lot of gun play, but increased crime, vandalism, poor school attendance, and other signs of decline were there. Yet, these signs effectively went ignored, and like dirty windows only accommodated anti-social behavior further. Now the area is a center for gangs engaged in selling drugs and guns.

I am not necessarily arguing that there should have been more recreational centers or social services in the area, although I do not exclude the possibility that some may be appropriate. I am arguing for society’s not ignoring petty crime, vandalism, and truancy as it develops, for I am sure that is what happened here. We have let windows go dirty and be broken, and now we have permitted the ante to rise to the gravest anti-social behavior. Tolerance for petty crime, leaving a high-risk area with less-than-adequate supervision, is an invitation to violent crime as we now have it

There can be no hiding from the fact that we find almost universally a high violent crime rate where young black males are concentrated. Jamaica itself supports this view. So does the terrible violent crime in South Africa today. In the United States, black people are about thirteen percent of the national population, yet they are responsible for about half of all violent crime. More accurately, we should say that black males, about six percent of the population, are responsible, because females, white or black, seldom commit violent crime. If we take only young black males, then about three or four percent of the population is responsible for about half of that nation’s violent crime.

And it appears to be no different in Toronto. The city’s black population is now about three-hundred thousand, roughly twelve to thirteen percent of the city’s population, and last year young black males were responsible for half or more of homicides. Since these homicides are intimately related to drug- and gun-running, it is reasonable to conclude that young black male involvement in those illegal activities is also high.

We know from anecdotal evidence in the schools – anecdotal because no racial statistics are yet kept although many in Toronto schools favor starting to keep them – that young black males are disproportionately involved in violating zero-tolerance rules which were intended to protect all members of the school community without the bias of personal judgment. In view of these and many other observations, it is not unreasonable for police to stop young black males with greater frequency than their proportion of the general population. We would expect good police to stop people in proportion to their resemblance to known offenders or suspects.

That is why accusations of racial profiling can be highly misleading. People who fit the description of reported criminals are always people of interest to police. The disproportionate incidence of violent behavior by any group only naturally interests them. Often, serious criminals are discovered by police making stops for breaking other more petty rules, as psychologists tell us criminals typically do, especially when there has been no other source of information leading to their arrest.

Toronto will not solve its new problem with warm platitudes and wishful thinking. You cannot even hope to apply further social remedies to assist young men now growing up in these areas until you have eliminated the present deadly threat. The psychopaths intimidate honest residents of buildings. They intimidate businesses. They intimidate children playing on the street. The absolute priority must be removing them from our society. Some certainty of consequences for violent crime must be established, if for no other reason than to encourage witnesses and to make the murderers unattractive figures to the young. So far these people can laugh at Toronto’s police. They have proved they can go to any part of the city, kill someone, and simply walk away. They might well be viewed as heroes to the young and hopeless.

Change is not possible without cooperation from black residents who have information or informed suspicions. It is irresponsible for people to refuse to cooperate with the police, just as it is irresponsible to spit on police arriving at an emergency, behavior whose long-run effect is to guarantee the continued public murder of black men by other black men and with it the decline of Toronto as a safe and decent city.

A multi-level task force of police might be helpful, because it would bring together different strengths in areas like undercover work and handling witnesses, although such task forces tend to raise jurisdictional disputes and other resentments in police forces.

Another measure would be tremendously helpful, and that is the extensive use of metal detectors in high-risk areas, but this is costly owing to the police required to man the machines, and it always raises civil liberties issues. Still, Pierre Trudeau took stern measures to stop the FLQ, and here we have a group that has murdered more than fifty people in one city, many in public, surely a form of genuine terror. As a temporary measure to get the guns off the street, it is worth serious consideration. Perhaps, Ontario’s proposed new emergency management act, giving the province fourteen days of exceptional power during an emergency, would allow two weeks of intensive gun-search activity.

Order and good government, founding principles of Canada, are under attack. They must be re-established before even talking about anything else.

As I write this, news has come in of a Toronto mother who, finding a loaded AK-47 assault rifle on her 17-year old son’s bed, has turned him in to police. Now, there is a woman truly concerned with the welfare of her son and her community. A few dozen like her could turn this whole ugly business around. I hope the politicians are quick to award her the genuine hero’s recognition she deserves.

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