Are kids okay in Toronto? Judging by the recent headlines, probably not. Toronto police arrested nearly 20 young people, including 10 minors (one of whom was only 15) when violence erupted on the East Beach weekend on Victoria Day.
The arrests took place in connection with two shootings, stabbings of two occupants at gunpoint, and various incidents of people throwing firecrackers at each other.
Police say one officer broke his leg in response to the shooting, while another had “serious strokes” in the face when someone threw a firecracker directly at him.
“This tik tok rally happened,” Brad Bradford, a board member for the Beaches in East York, told me Tuesday after a long period of discussions with police and defeated residents. I think we’ve seen it all over town – these informal gatherings where people want to be set free. And that’s fine, if you do it politely. Outlaw behavior is not acceptable.
But from Toronto’s beaches, the city as a whole is seeing an uptick in “outlaw behaviour,” particularly carjacking, one of which recently targeted Toronto Maple Leafs striker Mitch Marner (talking about a man who had a bad month). Again, the perpetrators involved in this type of crime tend to be minors.
Earlier this month, two teenagers, a 15-year-old and a 17-year-old, were charged with armed robbery and intentional disguise. At a recent press conference, he shrugged. Richard Harris of the Toronto Police Department burglary team said that in 2021 his unit responded to 59 auto thefts over the course of the year. However, in 2022, the unit has responded to 60 units so far: more than a year in about five months. According to York Regional Police, car thefts have doubled since 2019.
So it would not be an exaggeration to expect that the coming months will bring additional headlines about alleged petty perpetrators of violent crimes.
What is happening? Well, as of late and over the past couple of years, there isn’t much of a no-no.
It is legitimate to blame only the wave of crime in which young people are involved on the emotional toll of the COVID-19 pandemic. There is chaos on the beach every summer, a problem which Chancellor Bradford believes could be mitigated with additional resources from police and city parks. And car theft – even in large quantities – is not a new phenomenon.
But just as it would be foolish to blame what may be an increase in the number of young people committing predatory crimes entirely on epidemic isolation, it would also be foolish to completely rule out this effect.
For example, while some only point to the economic fallout of the pandemic as a driver for crimes such as car theft, Anna Sergey, professor of criminology and studies of organized crime at the University of Essex, points to some. Psychological.
“More than just looking at the shortage of cars, I’ve been looking at the lack of security,” says Sergey. “With this pandemic, it’s hard to feel safe, to feel safe at the job, and in your prospects.”
Sergey says short-term solutions to increasing crimes such as car theft include environmental design, CCTV and improved physical security (although she adds that this is “likely to displace crime elsewhere in the city”.)
“The long-term answer is the usual no-one likes,” she says. In other words, by examining “the social and economic roots of this type of crime. The motive is opportunism. It’s easy, it’s violent, it’s possessive. There can be an emotional component associated with the predatory situation: the feeling of power because they can choose the type of target.”
Michael Kessler, professor of ethics, society, and law at the University of Toronto, believes it is a mistake to assume, as some do, that juvenile delinquents “strategize around crimes to commit based on sentencing guidelines.”
In terms of psychological research, the juvenile brain is less able to integrate fears about the future into the present. It’s something we all go through on our way to adulthood.
But the pandemic may have slowed that process for some.
“We have basically gone through a few years in which people have lost access to the structures that help support good development. My view is that crime fills a void in people’s lives caused by missing elements such as family, work, school or hobbies, and socialization. I think many of young people have stunted development with regard to social responsibility simply because their social networks have shrunk over the past two years.
Kessler believes that the city and county should invest in a youth strategy that recognizes the specific development deficiencies highlighted by the pandemic.
Teens violently attacking each other and stealing cars at gunpoint can be a coincidence or a fact of life. But it is not an exaggeration to point out that some of these events could be a corollary to the total erasure of youth support for more than two years.
“Some of the effects of the pandemic will return to normal when life returns to normal,” Kessler says. “The metro will be as crowded in a year as it was three years ago.” But it is naive to assume that children will pass.