How to stop random violence on the TTC? Seven top experts offer real fixes

From the Toronto Star

Another aching death in Toronto’s transit system — this time, the killing of 16-year-old Gabriel Magalhaes — has renewed a sweeping question the city has faced for months. What do we do now to respond to the thrum of violence that’s shaken the city’s public transit system?

It’s an urgent issue made all the more difficult by the varied circumstances of the alleged perpetrators. While there are signs that at least some of the accused in recent TTC violence cases were struggling with their mental health, experts caution against drawing broad links between mental illness and crime. Similarly, though some of the accused had been living on the streets or in shelters, and homelessness has become increasingly visible on transit, health and social service workers warn against placing blame squarely on that population.  

While experts have warned there is no single cause or simple solution, a consensus has emerged in recent months that suggests faults in the city’s social fabric — with an increasing number of people in desperate circumstances without adequate supports. It’s an assessment backed by Gabriel’s mother, Andrea, who has been outspoken in the days since her son’s death about cuts to social resources, and inadequate access to mental health care.

So, what can be done — in both the short and long term — to meaningfully turn things around? Here’s what seven health researchers and practitioners, criminologists and police leaders, social service workers and mental health advocates would like to see in Toronto’s future.

The idea: A case-by-case deep dive to analyze what’s really happening

While Stephen Hwang, a physician and St. Michael’s Hospital Chair in Homelessness, Housing and Health, can list some general circumstances that can increase someone’s risk factors for violence, he sees Toronto as being in the throes of a condensed string of offences — one that should be examined in detail versus relying on assumptions.

To do that, he suggests a multidisciplinary “expert panel” explore the circumstances of each alleged perpetrator leading up to the moment of violence. (One challenge, he noted, would be protecting the rights of people who hadn’t yet faced trial.)

What did their life look like leading up to that day? Had they sought help in past for their mental health and hit roadblocks? Had they dealt with increased isolation in the last few years? Were there any warning signs or missed interventions, or did it come truly “out of the blue”?

“As a scientist, the first thing you need to do is look for patterns in the data,” Hwang said, cautioning that speculating or painting all the accused of the same brush is “unwise.”

In the short term, Hwang said consistency is important, questioning the effectiveness of increasing police presence in the TTC, only to publicly end that effort within weeks.

“If you know there’s never going to be a policeman there again, then the deterrent effect goes away.”

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