Toronto police are increasing their presence on city transit in light of recent violence, the force's chief said Thursday, despite criticism that more officers would not address deteriorating social conditions that could be at the root of the situation.
Chief Myron Demkiw said more than 80 officers are expected to be in place at Toronto Transit Commission locations across the city to reduce victimization, prevent crimes of opportunity and enhance public safety.
"We have moved quickly together, with the Toronto Police Services Board and mayor's support, to establish a sustainable solution to address the safety of everyone who uses our transit system," Demkiw said at a news conference alongside the mayor and the transit system CEO.
"Officers from across the city are participating in this enhancement and those who ride the transit will immediately notice an increased presence of Toronto police officers in the subways, on the streetcars and buses."
The TTC has seen several cases of violence in recent weeks, including stabbings, shootings with BB guns and a swarming.
The additional police patrols will comprise primarily off-duty officers working paid overtime shifts so front-line officers can keep responding to priority calls, Demkiw said. There's no end date for the enhancement, but police will monitor the situation day-to-day as it unfolds.
Further, he said police will use data from the force, the TTC and communities to adjust officer deployment locations and times.
“A million people travel our city every day – using subways, streetcars and buses – safely," Demkiw said. "We also have to be responsive to the recent events we have seen."
TTC CEO Rick Leary said the transit system is a "microcosm" of wider issues playing out in the city.
"We don't know exactly what is behind these incidents," he said. "But we know that the root causes are complex and they're going to require a co-ordinated approach and response."
Toronto Mayor John Tory said Thursday's announcement of more police in the system is just one step toward addressing safety concerns on public transit that came out of discussions between the city, the TTC, its union representatives and police.
"I know many people who use the TTC – the passengers are anxious and even scared," said Tory. "They must know that we are doing everything we can."
Tory also addressed criticism he's received over increasing the city's police budget and said the investments "are still a necessary part of the safety answers for today and tomorrow."
The city will continue investing in key areas of community safety, mental health and addictions treatment and anti-violence programs, he said, while calling on other levels of government to provide additional funding.
Shelagh Pizey-Allen, executive director of the transit users advocacy group TTCRiders, said the expansion of police presence on and around Toronto's transit system is a "bandage solution" that won't help in addressing the issue of violence in the city.
"Police don't address the root causes of violence ... Police cause harm to Black, Indigenous and racialized people," she said. "Some people, they will feel less safe when police is around."
She said some homeless people are taking shelter on the transit system because they have nowhere else to go and that makes them vulnerable and victims of violence.
Pizey-Allen said she takes the TTC almost every day and she and other riders have been feeling more nervous recently.
"It's not acceptable that transit workers and transit users are experiencing violence," she said. "But we are not confident the solutions we've heard today will increase safety, instead they will decrease safety for some people in our city."
The president of the union representing TTC workers penned an open letter to the prime minister Thursday calling for an "immediate and direct injection" of resources for violence prevention, mental health relief and homelessness on the transit system.
"No employee should feel endangered or threatened in their line of work, especially in a position like ours where we serve the interest of the general public in moving the city," Marvin Alfred wrote.
When asked about transit safety at a news conference Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the federal government "will no doubt step up'' if there was a role for it to play, and was "happy to partner'' with provinces and municipalities.
Tammy Landau, an associate professor of criminology at Toronto Metropolitan University, said there's no evidence linking the attacks on transit to people experiencing homelessness or psychological distress. However, she said the increasing number of people she's seen using the TTC for safety and shelter indicates a larger social problem.
"There seem to be spikes in cases of violence but I would see it on a continuum of the city really not being on top of taking care of its citizens," Landau said.
"There is a certain amount of disorder on public transit these days from people who are using it as housing that has, unfortunately, created a level of discomfort around the riders. Rightly or wrongly, people are not comfortable with that and, frankly, as a society we should not be either."
Part of the TTC's proposed 2023 operating budget includes a $4.4-million investment that will go toward 50 new special constable positions in an effort to increase safety and security, as well as 10 additional outreach workers.
Landau said that funding should be redirected to mental health supports as well as getting people safely housed.
"Why does that come after a $40-million bump to the police budget? You know how much support that could provide to communities that are going to end up being policed anyway?" Landau said.
"The easy response is to provide more policing and security, and it's just such a red herring ... You can't police your way out of social problems."
— With files from Jordan Omstead.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 26, 2023.
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.
Tyler Griffin and Maan Alhmidi, The Canadian Press