December 17, 2020

Statement On Private Security Guards Hired To Police Public Streets

Everyone deserves to feel safe in their neighbourhood and with this in mind, I am sympathetic to residents who have seen safety, and the perception of safety eroded in Cabbagetown South and Moss Park over the last year. Reports of rising assaults, theft and vandalism are incredibly distressing and a reason provided by some local residents on why they have hired private security guards to patrol city streets.

When Toronto Police and I learned about the private security guards, we expressed concerns and stressed the need to address community safety together. While I recognize the frustration and agree that there is an immediate need to address the root causes of poverty and homelessness, the expensive endeavor of deploying private security guards in select neighbourhoods will not be realistically sustainable in the long term. Of equal importance, it needs to be mentioned that private security guards do not have the authority to enforce any laws or by-laws.

The Toronto Police have eight dedicated Neighbourhood Officers who work hard in partnership with community agencies to support Cabbagetown South and Moss Park. This represents the highest level of dedicated neighbourhood policing in Toronto. Despite all their excellent work, it has not brought relief to the area because Toronto Police can’t charge and fine people out of addiction. They can’t imprison people out of poverty. The same can be said about private security guards.

What Toronto needs and the Province can provide is a comprehensive health and mental health care system with more addiction recovery services. We need detox beds and supportive housing. We need trauma informed health and mental health care. We need immediate, direct financial support for the service providers in the area so they can expand their hours and support people where and when they need it. Let us recognize that the social determinants of health are the same as the social determinants of safety.

Three of the ten poorest census tracts in Toronto are within the Downtown East (DTE). The estimated homeless population in Toronto increased 60% between 2013 and 2018. Complexity of issues among the homeless population is also high with 57% of people responding to the Street Needs Assessment reporting more than one kind of health issue (chronic/acute medical conditions; physical disability; mental health issue; or addiction). The area is a destination for equity-seeking populations (LGBTQ, Racialized people, Indigenous people) who access social services which are not consistently accessible in other parts of the City. Thirty-two percent of the suspected overdose calls to paramedics in Toronto occur within the DTE, with 1,044 calls in 2018. All of these issues have been significantly exacerbated by COVID-19.

Before COVID-19 hit and blew up these crises, we were making real progress. Through the adoption of the Five-Year Downtown East Action Plan, we have been rapidly training people in overdose recognition and response and suicide prevention training. In addition, as part of this action plan, we’re preparing to launch two new neighbourhood-dedicated teams in January 2021 to further support residents. The City of Toronto is investing approximately $1 million in this new service enhancement which include:

  1. A new team to provide pickup of drug use supplies, including on private property in the Downtown East. The City will fund the hiring of people with lived experience of homelessness or substance use, engaging them in the care of the neighbourhood, while employing people who face barriers to traditional employment.
  2. A multidisciplinary team skilled in de-escalation and crisis intervention to respond to individuals experiencing mental health crisis and to engage in non-violent conflict in two Downtown East neighbourhoods, Church Wellesley Village and South Cabbagetown. The team will provide street outreach, rapid response and short-term follow-up support.

Additionally, the City’s Community Safety and Wellbeing unit works with key partners such as Toronto Community Housing and Fred Victor to coordinate and safety plan for individuals at risk of and who are impacted by community violence and gang affiliated activity. Key outcomes of these partnerships are safety planning and coordination of services and supports as needed and identified, and referrals to FOCUS Toronto.

The Toronto Police has stressed in every community meeting, that residents who are victims of, or who witness criminal activity have a recourse. They should be calling 911 when it is a life-threatening emergency, the general dispatch line or going onto the police website to file a report.

A private security firm has no jurisdiction to respond on our public streets. There is no indication that they have the appropriate training to respond to the complex needs of the individuals they encounter. There is no accountability of these private security guards to the rest of the public.

I understand the frustration of the residents who feel compelled to take matters into their own hands but policing in Toronto is the exclusive responsibility of the Toronto Police.

I have been and will continue to work with residents, City staff, Toronto Police and community partners to advocate for sustainable solutions. This work is clearly not done yet and there is much more to do. We can not be distracted by temporary responses when the permanent goal is ensuring there is adequate affordable housing, mental health and addiction supports for all who need it.

Tyler Johnson

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