Despite rise, police say T.O. murder rate 'low'
Published Wednesday, December 26, 2007 12:04PM EST
As Toronto approaches its all-time record for the number of homicides in a year, police say the murder tally is not a cause for alarm, despite a criminologist's concern that a troubling trend may be developing.
A spate of gun killings in recent weeks pushed the homicide count to 84, but that number is "extremely low" for a city the size of Toronto, says Staff Insp. Brian Raybould, who oversees the force's homicide unit.
"We're a city of 2.6 million," Raybould told CTV.ca. "We only see it as being high this year as compared to another extremely low number, which was last year, when it was 70."
Since 1991, when the murder rate hit a high of 89, Toronto has averaged about 62 homicides a year. There was a spike in 2005, the so-called "year of the gun," where firearms were used in 52 of the 80 murders.
But Raybould says crime statistics resemble weather patterns, where short-term "blips" don't reflect the long-range trends.
"You have to look at the big picture," he says. "(Eighty-two) is an irrelevant number.
"I have no concern about it whatsoever."
When looking at other Canadian cities, Toronto's ranks down the list in terms of its homicide rate, or the number of murders per 100,000 residents.
Homicide rates in 2006, according to Statistics Canada:
- Regina, 4.5
- Saskatchewan, 4.1
- Edmonton, 3.7
- Saskatoon, 3.3
- Toronto, 2.6
- Ottawa, 2.1
Vancouver and Montreal also had homicide rates slightly above the national average of 1.85.
Toronto is considered one of the safest large cities in North America. Some homicide rates in U.S. cities with a similar population are three to eight times higher:
- Philadelphia, 28 (406 homicides in 2006)
- Houston, 17.2 (376 homicides)
- Chicago, 15.5 (466 homicides)
- Dallas, 15 (187 homicides)
Smaller U.S. cities near Toronto also have significantly higher murder rates. Last year, Detroit's homicide rate was 47.1 and the city had 414 murders, while Buffalo's murder rate was 26.4 and recorded 73 killings.
Guns used in most T.O. killings
Firearms are still being used in the majority of murders, with gun homicides representing 43 of the city's first 84 murders.
Of the rest, stabbings accounted for 24, there were eight fatal beatings and six strangulations.
Raybould notes the number of fatal and non-fatal shootings is declining. He says the trend is "encouraging," and he believes the force's efforts to get illegal handguns off the streets is working.
"We are seeing the shooting murders go down and the stabbings and the beatings go back up, so that tells me that guns aren't as easily available."
Raybould says while some residents don't feel safe in Toronto, statistics prove the public shouldn't fear becoming the victim of a murder by a stranger. He says only three homicides this year involved a victim who did not know their attacker.
"Most of these murders surround the gun culture, the gang culture, drugs, and prostitution or the sex trade," he says.
"If you're not involved in any of those things ... then you don't get killed in Toronto."
Raybould says criminals are also deterred by the homicide unit's high "clearance rate," as about 75 per cent of murders are solved.
Part of the force's success comes from improvements to the province's witness protection program, Raybould says. He notes the secretive program has received more funding recently and now offers better assistance.
"We have a lot more people in the witness protection program than we ever have," Raybould says. "That's one of the only ways you can combat certain types of this gang violence, is to protect your witnesses, to work with them and supply whatever they need to maintain happy and healthy lives."
Trend may be developing: expert
While police say there isn't one particular factor that has caused a rise in homicides over the last few years, one criminology expert suggests there may be a trend developing.
"Three or four years ago I would have said, from 1974 through to 2004, the homicide rate fluctuated up and down but there was no particular trend," University of Toronto professor Rosemary Gartner told CTV.ca.
"But the last few years suggests there may be a departure from that flat trend, that there may be something going on to bring the homicides up in Toronto."
Gartner says increasing economic inequality and poverty rates, as well as cutbacks to social services and education beginning in the early-to-mid 1990s, could be behind the pattern.
"Those kids who would have been affected by those changes are now hitting their late teens and early 20s," Gartner says.
"One possibility is that we're reaping what we've sowed with some of those major changes to the social safety net and the quality of life for the more disadvantaged people of Toronto."
Gartner says she is hesitant to define the pattern as a trend with only a few years of data, but she says the numbers suggest "we do need to pay attention to what may be an upward shift in homicides."
Here is a look at the number of homicides in Toronto over the last several years:
- 84+ in 2007
- 70 in 2006
- 80 in 2005
- 64 in 2004
- 66 in 2003
- 62 in 2002
(Source: Toronto Police Service)