by Shafiqullah Aziz
Since June 16th, residents and community members of Toronto’s downtown east side have been subject to a sharp increase in police presence in the area as a result of a new neighbourhood project initiated by 51 Division. Less than a month into the project, community members in the area are already beginning to feel the affects of the initiative.
The Toronto Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy, more commonly known as TAVIS, has stationed 24 additional police constables on street and bike patrol along with 12 staff sergeants in the downtown east as part of a larger project of targeted policing that will cover the neighbourhood from Wellesley to Queen, and Church to Parliament in an ongoing police sweep that will last until September 8 of this year. The targeting of community members in one of the poorest neighbourhoods in urban Canada comes at a time when services are being underfunded, community housing conditions are deteriorating, and demand for shelters are at a high as a result of ongoing processes of gentrification.
While the initiative is new to the downtown east, Toronto’s working class and racialized people are quite familiar with TAVIS’s reputation, and the extremely aggressive method of policing that is used to establish this increased police presence in neighbourhoods throughout the city. Within the first week of TAVIS hitting the streets in the downtown east, more than 300 people had been arrested or detained, with many more being randomly stopped, carded, ticketed, and harassed since then. Although TAVIS claims that these initiatives are used to reduce crime and increase neighbourhood safety, the only thing that community members have seen is the targeting of the most vulnerable sections of the population: the homeless, racialized and working class youth, and indigenous peoples.
“There are socio-economic issues that really do need to be addressed in the community, but TAVIS isn’t going to help solve those issues,” said Zoe Dodd, an organizer with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP). Dodd told BASICS that “We lose people from our community when they arrest people and put them in jail, which is really traumatic to the family, friends and loved ones of those being arrested”. OCAP, a group that has a long history of organizing in the downtown east with many ties to the community, believes that TAVIS will only increase the problems that people in the area experience instead of addressing the existing issues of homelessness, unemployment, alcohol and drug use, and deteriorating housing conditions.
Following a press conference held on June 16th at the corner of Carleton and Sherbourne, a coalition of community members and organizations including OCAP, the Network for the Elimination of Police Violence, Jane and Finch Action Against Poverty, the Toronto Sex Workers Action Project, the Rights Watch Network and the International People’s Democratic Uhuru Movement have publicly endorsed and assisted in efforts to resist the increase in police violence and harassment on community members in the area. The resistance efforts, headed by OCAP, aim to bring an end to targeted policing, racial profiling and police violence.
For many of the community members in the area, it is hard to see how more cops will work towards addressing issues of housing, homelessness and poverty, especially with TAVIS’s track record of tens of thousands of arrests in the areas they have targeted in the past. Although there are serious issues with crime and safety in the area, Sigrid, a long time resident of the downtown east side, feels that more police won’t make the neighbourhood safer. “Even with an increase in policing, they still don’t stop crime because policing is reactive and not proactive”. Without a strategy to address unemployment, housing repairs and homelessness, how can we ever expect police to be able to “increase safety in our neighbourhoods”?
According the Toronto Police Services website, the implementation of the TAVIS strategy involves a three phase process.
1) Additional TPS officers assigned to areas experiencing an increase in violent activity
This is currently the phase that the downtown east is in, seeing an increase of arrests, detentions, carding, stop and search, ticketing, and other forms of harassment.
2) Once the neighbourhood is safe, “maintenance-level” enforcement continues with increased police/city/community member collaboration
What this part of the strategy really means is TAVIS seeks to increase police presence in the targeted area establish a tradition of policing that will continue harassment and aggressive policing tactics once the TAVIS project is rolled over to the next neighbourhood.
3) “Normalized” policing provided as support to an empowered community
Police discussions about TAVIS often revolve around the question of community policing. One look on the TAVIS Facebook page or Twitter will show many photos of police officers smiling and posing while walking or biking around, appearing to be a positive influence on whatever community they are currently occupying.
However, their propaganda is easy to see through when they put pictures of community BBQ’s with less than 10 people that can be seen in the background of a photo, or pictures of painting a community mural with only one or two people present. Clearly these images show us that not only does TAVIS attempt to lure community members, particularly youth, with free food and ‘fun’ activities, but that they also completely lack popular community support. Without real alternatives and solutions to address the people’s needs, hot dogs and hamburgers will not win the community over to the police.
In an ongoing effort to serve the community and ensure safety in the area, a group of local residents are conducting nightly cop watch patrols throughout the neighbourhood to ensure the safety of community members who are being constantly harassed by TAVIS. Community members Joan, Sigrid, Strong Hearted Woman and Miguel Avila are a part of a group named Grassroots Outreach, a collective that is women and indigenous-led, and aims to ensure that police are held accountable for their actions. Strong Hearted Woman explains that based on their work, “people come by and tell us that we provide the community a good service. We provide our services as volunteers so anyone can do this and make a difference in their community”.
Not only are the nightly cop watch patrols important for the prevention of police violence and harassment, but Grassroots Outreach also makes interventions when they see crime happening in their neighbourhood. This form of collective action presents clear alternatives for the downtown east community that approaches safety and crime-prevention in a manner that empowers the community.
For more information and to get involved in resisting TAVIS in the Downtown East, come to the Community Town Hall that will be held on Thursday August 7th from 6PM-8PM at 40 Oak Street or send an email to [email protected]