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Childhood is scary, brutal and all too short in Toronto's most violent public-housing projects, as a horrific Russian-roulette-style attack on a 12-year-old boy makes clear. Though the assault occurred two years ago, it was revealed only this week in court.

Simply for speaking to the police about a minor incident, the boy was held at gunpoint by an 18-year-old thug. This thug, Bernard Boachie, had not even been part of the incident in question. Yet he deemed it necessary to teach the boy the law of his Jane Street and Finch Avenue West neighbourhood. He put a bullet in his revolver, spun the cylinder and squeezed the trigger. The boy was struck in the arm and torso, and had to have a large section of his colon removed in hospital. Mr. Boachie made his point.

Now the public must respond. This is not a matter to be left to the judge who sentenced Mr. Boachie this week to eight years in jail. What about all the children who are left behind under the arrogant eyes of others of Mr. Boachie's ilk? Who will protect them?

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The attack, which occurred during the especially violent summer of 2005, is the kind of detail from which an observer can reconstruct what it is like to grow up in or near the housing projects of the Jane-Finch neighbourhood. The thugs are the lawmakers; they set the tone. The children either accept the law or put themselves physically at risk. There are few men around to protect the children or teach the young males that these laws are destructive and self-defeating. The children at some point will, partly to protect themselves, join the thugs; the cycle will continue. All children influenced by the thuggish values will be harmed developmentally. And many crimes will not be reported, in part because people are too afraid to talk to the police. Their silence will breed more crime, which will breed more fear-induced silence.

An important part of the answer to this fear lies with the police. The Toronto Police Service under Chief Bill Blair has put more emphasis on community policing at Jane and Finch. Lawyer Courtney Betty, who has been involved with this neighbourhood, points to the success of police athletic leagues in Detroit, New York and Chicago in building bridges between police and high-risk communities. "Community policing, to be really effective, is not just 'oh, we're going to do a community barbecue.' It's getting to know that community, and building that level of trust." The police have made great progress, he said, but "there's still a substantial way to go." The sentencing of Mr. Boachie is a reminder of why police need to become part of the communities they protect.

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