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Police presence beefed up for Caribbean festival

Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair speaks at a press conference following a meeting with Premier Dalton McGuinty at Queen's Park on Monday, July 23, 2012.

Michelle Siu/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Hundreds of extra police will be on Toronto's streets during the upcoming Caribbean festival and will also be deployed for several weeks afterward in high-crime areas, Police Chief William Blair told reporters Thursday.

In general, the initiative was welcomed by community leaders.

The additional manpower will derive from a compulsory overtime program, he said, and will be paid for by reallocating a portion of the existing police budget. He estimated the plan will cost around $2-million, and will principally involve changing the current 8- and 10-hour shifts to 12-hour shifts.

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At what used to be called Caribana and is now the Scotiabank Caribbean Carnival Toronto, the redeployment will see up to 456 additional officers in the downtown during the three-day festival, together with a further 350 who will oversee the big Aug. 4 parade as it winds its way along the lakeshore.

Chief Blair's plan comes on the heels of a pledge by the provincial government earlier this week of $12.5-million in new funding to help combat gun violence. The funds were announced by Premier Dalton McGuinty after a meeting with Chief Blair and Mayor Rob Ford in response to the mass shooting in Scarborough that killed two people and wounded 23 others.

The police presence at the annual Caribbean Carnival is always augmented, but this year's extra numbers will be "significantly" greater than usual, a police spokesman said.

After that, an extra daily average of 328 officers will be on patrol during the five-week period from Aug. 6 to Sept. 9, chiefly in high-crime areas.

Carnival spokesman Stephen Weir said he expected the additional police presence would likely be welcome.

"It sounds like good news," he said.

Earlier this week, the festival announced that for the first time, security staff would search people sitting in the bandstand at the parade. Mr. Weir compared the searches to procedures at sporting events, and said the move wasn't because of past gun violence at the festival so much as to alleviate public safety concerns.

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As for the extra post-carnival police presence, "Safety and security in particular neighbourhoods are important and critical," said Margaret Parsons, executive director of the African Canadian Legal Clinic. "Our concern is that it has to be balanced."

She said police must take care only to stop people when they have good reason to do so, and to avoid racial profiling.

"We have to be honest and recognize that there are high-risk communities and those communities are the ones that are experiencing more violence," she said, while cautioning that "this isn't an opportunity to forget people's civil rights [and] civil liberties."

Separately, Chief Blair said the the money announced by the province this week will fund what he termed a "very significant" boost to undercover police, notably members of the gun and gang task force.

"This will be real officers working in the most victimized areas," Deputy Police Chief Peter Sloly told Thursday's media briefing, and flexibility is a big part of the post-festival plan, he said.

"Those extra resources can be moved anywhere, any time in the city that requires it."

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Audrey Campbell, of the Jamaican Canadian Association, said she, too, welcomed the initiative, while stressing what she termed "the balance" between a heftier police presence and the need not to over-police the city's more troubled areas.

"Our intent is not to over-police our communities, our intent is to over-protect them," Chief Blair responded.

Toronto Police Association president Mike McCormack, however, said the overtime offers only a temporary solution, and he urged the city to scrap the force's two-year-old hiring freeze.

"For a short-term fix, this might suffice, but for me the concern is that we need long-term police resources," he said.

"The commitment to priority neighbourhoods should be long-term. But the constant dialogue for the last two years has been on downsizing and getting rid of resources."

The TPS is currently 175 officers short of its optimal staffing level, Mr. McCormack said.

Nonetheless, he said his members are willing to help make up the shortfall through the overtime plan, which is allowed for in the current TPS contract.

"When we're called upon to do our job, we do it," he said. "It's our membership that's giving up our weekends to step up to the plate."

Supported by about 2,000 civilian staff, the uniformed strength of the Toronto police currently comprises roughly 5,400 officers, a number that is slowly shrinking as the result of attrition and a hiring freeze.

The infusion of provincial money will provide permanent funding of $5-million a year for the TPS's Toronto Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy, which dispatches police to high-crime neighbourhoods to seize guns, make arrests and build connections with locals.

Launched in 2006, the TAVIS program has been hailed for making a sizable dent in Toronto's crime statistics. It deploys four mobile, 18-officer teams in high-risk neighbourhoods.

All the same, however, while crime generally continues to drop in Canada's biggest city, the number of shooting incidents has spiked sharply upward this year.

With reports from Adrian Morrow, Carys Mills and Matthew Robinson

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About the Author

At The Globe and Mail since 1982, in assorted manifestations, chiefly crime reporter, foreign correspondent and member of the Editorial Board, Tim is now retired. More

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