John Sewell: Relax, we’re almost as safe as Guelph

By John Sewell –

Police Chief Bill Blair has announced that crime in Toronto is down, which is obviously a good thing. Now comes the big question—what does it mean?

Chief Blair says that for the first six months in 2009, charges laid for serious crime are down about 12% compared to last year. That’s the drop in the rates this year for murder, sexual assault, assault, break and enter, auto theft, and theft over $1000.

The two categories of crime which haven’t seen reductions this year are shootings (there were 127 shootings in Toronto to mid-July, which is 20% higher than for the same period in 2008), and robberies, which are at about the same level as last year.

Crime levels have been falling for most of the past 10 years. The number of charges laid in Toronto in 2008 were 7.5% less than in 1998, although that decrease was not reflected in the number of homicides in Toronto in that 10-year period—homicides increased by 20%.

And what has happened in Toronto is little different from what has happened across Canada. Statistics Canada data shows an overall crime rate decrease in Canada of about 20% since 1998, and a similar decrease in the crime severity index, which is an index created by policing agencies.

Almost all of this is good. But why is crime falling?

Some criminologists think crime is falling as the prevalence of crack cocaine declines. Crimes rates rose quickly when crack use spread in cities in the 1990s—new addicts were willing to do all sorts of crime to get money for another hit. But as crack use recedes (or regularizes itself like other drugs), those crimes aren’t happening and crime rates are returning to previous levels.

Changing demographics probably affects the crime rate. Young men under the age of 25 are responsible for by far the largest number of criminal incidents, and as the size of that cohort declines, the number of crimes does too.

These two changes probably account for the decreasing crime rate throughout the country.

Can police actions affect the crime rate? Most certainly. That is seen clearly in the number of charges laid by police for possession of drugs. In Toronto the number of charges laid by police for drug offenses (of which marijuana possession is by far the largest number) increased from 7,200 in 2003 to 11,000 in 2008—an increase of about 45%. Obviously, if Toronto police decided to be more lenient about pot possession, the number of charges laid would fall dramatically.

As well, the number of charges laid are a direct result of police action. Currently, police now lay an average of four charges against anyone involved in a criminal incident. Thus, in Toronto, about 200,000 criminal charges are laid every year against about 50,000 individuals. One reason for the multiple charges is to encourage the accused to plead guilty to something so a conviction can be achieved. Crime rates would obviously fall if police agreed only to lay two charges for every incident.

Whether police activity is generally successful in preventing crime is more debatable. We know Chief Blair has been putting considerable resources into guns and gangs in the last year, but the number of shootings in the city has increased, not decreased.  Would it have increased even more without those extra resources? In all likelihood the number of officers deployed has little influence on the number of shootings.

The more likely way of reducing these crimes, which are mostly youth related, is by having good schooling, good day care and early childhood programs, and more affordable housing. As many who have studied the situation have concluded, these crimes are best addressed through changes to social programs, not through more policing.

What has remained constant in Toronto and in other cities is the way policing services are delivered. There have been no significant changes in the way the police operate here or anywhere else in the country in the last 20 years.

So the fact crime levels continue to fall in Toronto and across the country is a good thing, but one should not jump to the conclusion that the reduction has anything to do with the way the police do their work or the number of police officers on the job.

One last point: Toronto continues to have one of the lowest rates of crime in the country. The crime severity index prepared by StatsCan shows Toronto with a rate of 64.3, far lower that Winnipeg, Edmonton, Vancouver and Montreal (all above 90.) The only cities in Canada with a better index rating are Quebec City, Barrie, Sagenay and Guelph, and the rates for them are only marginally better.  Toronto is a very safe place to live and work, and we should be pleased about that.