Even after what felt like a rash of violence over the summer, Toronto is still a super safe city to live in, says criminologist Scot Wortley. We caught up with the U of T prof to discuss what’s really going on with the violent-crime rate, the differences between how we view black killers and white killers, and why dads have no business making decisions about the death penalty.
Last year at this time, Toronto had hit a 40-year low for violence, and then, all of a sudden, we were in the middle of a second so-called summer of the gun. Isn’t that sort of counterintuitive?
Not necessarily. We’ve got to understand guns and crime by looking at the big picture and not short-term moral panic. Overall, Toronto is arguably safer than it’s ever been. We’re at lows with respect to homicide and violent crime that we haven’t seen since the 60s. Most people think Toronto is much more violent today, when, in fact, your chances of dying a violent death were much greater in the 1970s.
Do we blame disco?
That’s right. John Travolta caused a major gravitation towards white suits and gangsterism.
How is the nature of violent crime changing? Are gangs more prominent?
Well, our city as a whole is incredibly safe, but there are a few disturbing trends. One is that violence is more likely to take place in public places, part of which is a result of the huge drop in domestic violence. It’s also more likely to involve minority males from our most disadvantaged communities, both as offenders and victims. I think we’ve got to highlight the fact that Toronto is becoming more economically polarized. There’s also the rise in handgun use and its ties to violence.
Let’s go back to last summer. Is there any explanation for that shocking trifecta of violence—the Eaton Centre shooting, then the shooting at the Sicilian Café, and then the shootings at the block party on Danzig Street?
I think in most ways these are three totally unrelated crimes that happened in close proximity and gave the impression of a crime wave, which led to discussions about gang violence and crime. And then, of course, we have the media dialogue on “Is this a new trend?” I have not seen any media coverage since the Danzig Street shooting saying, “We haven’t had any crime in a while.”
Do you think there was something particularly horrifying about someone getting shot at an ice cream parlour? I remember the Just Desserts shooting and that was almost 20 years ago.
One of the things that definitely galvanizes fear is public shootings. Shootings and murders that take place in private households or quote-unquote “bad areas of town” don’t tend to stir up as much fear. The sentiment in the case of the Just Desserts crime and ones like it is, “That could have happened to me. I go to the Eaton Centre. My life could be in danger. Violence is out of control and even if I’m minding my own business I could be a victim.” With crimes that involve bad guys alone—the drug dealer getting shot at 3 a.m. outside of a nightclub—people will often think, “Well, you might expect that to happen.”
Let’s talk a bit about why I had to Google the names of victims of the Eaton Centre shooting and yet the name Jane Creba is burned on my brain.
White victims of violence get much more coverage than black victims or minority victims. This is particularly true when they are white victims of stranger violence who fit the profile of the innocent. Jane Creba was the truly innocent individual and also the sympathetic victim—young, attractive, law abiding. I can tell you that if Jane Creba had been black, and the same age, and was shot at Jane and Finch, it probably wouldn’t have generated much media coverage at all. It’s not just a question of victims, either.
What do you mean?
At the beginning of every year I ask my class if they can provide me with the names of Canada’s most infamous killers. Everybody they name is white.
How many people out of 10 say Paul Bernardo?
He’s way up there. Also Clifford Olson, Robert Pickton, but when you ask them who’s most responsible for crime and violence, in Eastern Canada they’ll say black people and in the west they’ll say aboriginals. I think that says a lot about how we learn about crime through the media. The narrative of black and aboriginal crime in Canada tends to focus on issues of poverty, gangs, drugs, gun culture. In other words, when a black person commits a heinous crime we tend to view it as a group and cultural phenomenon. All members of the black community feel the sting of that homicide. Contrast that to how white crime is covered as an individual phenomena.
You’re a relatively new parent. How does having a young daughter affect your view of safety?
There is the side of me that knows the figures and how relatively safe we are in Canada, but there is also the emotional side, and like any parent, I worry about my daughter’s safety. It’s funny, though, how emotions get involved. For example, I’m strongly against bringing the death penalty back to Canada, but then I also know that if anything ever happened to my family, I would probably want the [perpetrators] to die.
That’s why victims don’t get to make our laws.
Exactly. A few years ago my car was stolen and I was like, “Death penalty for car thieves.”
Best Halloween costume?
Rock or rap?
Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five.
Favourite burger joint?
Five Guys Burgers and Fries.
Best recent read?
Half Blood Blues.
Most overrated virtue?
Most underrated virtue?