Crime in Toronto

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Crime in Toronto has been relatively low in comparison to other major cities, but recently, it saw a record number of shootings in 2019. In 2017, a ranking of 60 cities by The Economist ranked Toronto as the 24th safest major city in the world, behind Tokyo, London, Paris, and Seoul, but one of the safest major cities in North America.[1][2] A CEOWORLD magazine ranked Toronto as the 95th safest city in the world for 2018, running behind several other major cities like Tokyo, London, Osaka, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Taipei but safer than most cities in North America.[3]

Even though Toronto is the fourth largest city in North America, it has a relatively low homicide rate that fluctuated between 2.1 and 3.8, worse than most of Europe, but comparable to modern day New York.[4][5] per 100,000 people over the 2010s decade, which is lower than other major cities such as Atlanta (19.0), Chicago (18.5), Boston (9.0), San Francisco (8.6), New York City (5.1), and San Jose (4.6).[6][7] In 2007, Toronto's robbery rate also ranked relatively high, with 407.1 robberies per 100,000 people, compared to Detroit (675.1), Chicago (588.6), Los Angeles (348.5), Vancouver (366.2), New York City (265.9), Montreal (235.3), San Diego (158.8), and Portland (150.5).[8][9][10][11][12][13]

While homicide rates in Toronto were relatively low for several years, they started to increase in 2016 until Toronto experienced the highest homicide rate among major Canadian cities in 2018;[14] in that single year, the city surpassed the homicide rate of New York City.[4] Homicide rates declined again in 2019; when compared across major metropolitan areas, the Greater Toronto Area ranked ninth in Canada with a homicide rate of 2.26 per 100,000.[15]

Late 1980s and early 1990s[edit]

Total Shootings
Year Occurrences Victims
1990[17] 55
1991[18] 89
1992[18] 65
1993[19] 59
1994[19] 65
1995[19] 61
1996[19] 58
1997[19] 61
1998[19] 58
1999[19] 49B
2000[19] 60
2001[19] 60
2002[19] 65
2003[19] 67 31 326 [20]
2004[19] 64 27 [17]
2005[21] 80A 52 359 359
2006[21] 70 29 217 323
2007[22] 86 43 205 242
2008[22] 70 36 238 336
2009[22] 62 37 256 338
2010[22] 65 32 260 330
2011[23] 51 27–28A 227 281
2012[23] 57 33 213 289
2013[23] 57 22 202 255
2014[23] 58 27 177[24] 242
2015[25] 59 27 288[24] 429
2016[26] 75[27][28] 41 407[24] 581
2017[29] 65/66 [30][31]A 39 395[24] 594
2018[32] 96C[33] 51 424 604
2019 78[34] 44[35] 495[35]
2020 71 [36] 39 [37] 462 217

A Inconsistency in source data. B 1999: Lowest total since 1986. C 2018: Highest total to date.

In the late 1980s, gangs in Toronto were becoming increasingly violent. This coincided with the arrival of crack cocaine in the city, which caused more gun violence to occur in low-income neighborhoods.[38] In 1988, Toronto Police were under scrutiny for a series of shootings of unarmed black men, dating back to the late 1970s.[39][40][41] In 1991, Toronto experienced its most violent year with 89 murders (that murder tally was surpassed in 2018), 16 of which were linked to drug wars involving rival gangs.[38][42] Much of the high murder toll of 1991 was due to a gang war in Chinatown between various Chinese gangs for the control of the drug trade.[43]

On May 4, 1992, there were riots on Yonge Street, which followed peaceful protesting of a fatal shooting of an unarmed black man by Toronto police, the eighth such shooting in the last four years, and fourth fatal one.[44] Later that year, local activist Dudley Laws claimed that police bias against blacks was worse in Toronto than in Los Angeles.[39]

Late 1990s[edit]

Toronto recorded 49 homicides in 1999, which, as of 2022, remains the city's lowest homicide total since 1986. That year, there were a total of 90 homicides across Toronto's census metropolitan area, with a murder rate of 1.68 per 100,000 people.[45][46][47][48]

2005–2014: "Year of the Gun", shootings and the falling murder rate[edit]

In 2005, Toronto media coined the term "Year of the Gun" because the number of gun-related homicides reached a record 52 out of 80 murders in total;[49] almost double the 27 gun deaths recorded the previous year.[50] On December 26, 2005, 15-year-old Jane Creba was shot and killed in the Boxing Day shooting while shopping on Yonge Street in downtown Toronto. After this incident, many people called for the federal government to ban handguns in Canada; this also became an issue in the 2006 federal election, but the number of homicides dropped to 70 in 2006.

However, 2007 saw another, smaller wave of gun violence starting in May with the shooting death of 15-year-old Jordan Manners at his school, C. W. Jefferys Collegiate Institute. A couple of months later, on July 22, 2007, 11-year-old Ephraim Brown was killed after being shot in the neck by a stray bullet, during a gang shooting in the city's North York district at Jane Street and Sheppard Avenue. These events raised calls for a ban on handguns once again. Of the 86 murders in 2007, half were via firearm; thus, Toronto had a murder rate of about 3.3 per 100,000, slightly less than the peak rate of 3.9 in 1991.[42] There was a drop in murders again in 2008 with 70 (a total of 105 murders in the Greater Toronto Area – including a record high 27 occurring in neighbouring Peel Region, but statistically this was an anomalous year there).

The falling murder totals continued in 2009 with 65, followed by 63 in 2010, then the lowest total in recent times with only 51 (75 total in the GTA) in 2011, the lowest homicide total since 1986 at a rate of 2.0 per 100,000, close to the national average, representing a further dramatic decline in the city's murder rate for the fourth consecutive year. The number of homicides stabilized to the mid-50s for the next 4 years. Overall, shooting incidents also declined, from 335 occurrences in 2010 to 255 reported in 2013, and reaching a decade-low 196 for 2014. Since 2014, gun violence has been steadily rising, with 350 shootings in 2017, 380 in 2018, and well over 400 in 2019.


After a substantial decrease in homicides after the 2005 "year of the gun" and a stable period 2009–2015, the murder rate in Toronto started to increase again drastically in 2016.[51] The homicide rate jumped to 75 homicides in 2016 and spiked in 2018 with 96 homicides in 2018, which is partially due to the Toronto van attack, which resulted in the murder of 10 people on April 23. This increased Toronto's homicide rate to 3.5 per 100,000 people in 2018, the highest among major Canadian cities and higher than New York City for the same year.[14][52] The homicide total dropped again in 2019 to 78 (a rate of 2.7 per 100,000 people) below the rate of most US cities, but still higher than the Canadian average of 1.8.[53]

In conjunction with that increase in murders, overall shooting incidents also increased from a low of 177 in 2014 to an all-time high of 490 in 2019, even outpacing gun incidents that occurred in 2018.[35] At the same time, gun deaths increased from a low of 22 in 2013 to a high of 51 in 2018 and dropped slightly to 44 in 2019.[35]

Organized crime[edit]

Large criminal organizations have been operating in the Toronto region since at least the mid-19th century, beginning with the homegrown, yet short-lived Markham Gang. Since that time, large-scale organized crime in Toronto has mostly been the domain of international or foreign-based crime syndicates. From the late 18th century and continuing well into the 20th century, Toronto was a city mostly inhabited by Protestants of British extraction who brought their own values to the city. In the Victorian age and for some time afterward, Toronto came to be known as "Toronto the Good". In Toronto as elsewhere in Canada laws were passed to regulate social behavior.[54] Drugs such as cocaine and marijuana together with gambling were banned, prostitution was cracked down upon, and access to alcohol was limited.[55] A British visitor to Toronto in 1896 stated: "Sunday is as melancholy and suicidal sort of day as Puritan principles can make it".[56] As part of the effort to regulate social behavior, the Toronto police force went from 172 officers in 1872 to 600 officers by 1914.[57] The majority of the Toronto policemen in this period were British immigrants with a disproportionate number of the police force being Ulster Protestants.[57] The growth of the police force was due not to an increase in crime per se, but rather due to an increase in laws regulating social behavior as the major concerns of the Toronto police went from being burglary, vagrancy and breaking up fistfights in 1872 to enforcing laws regarding censorship, Sabbath-breaking, dance halls, gambling, alcohol consumption, street traffic, and all forms of "immorality" by 1914.[57] One journalist, Harry Wodson, wrote that "Toronto the Good" was a city of "shall nots" as the city council had passed 6, 000 bylaws regulating all forms of social behavior.[57] Such laws created opportunities for organized crime which moved in to fill the demand for what at least certain segments of the population wanted, but were not legally able to enjoy.

The principle concern of the Toronto police in the early 20th century was a moral panic that prostitution was increasing as it was widely believed that organized crime was engaging in sexual slavery by kidnapping young women and forcing them into prostitution.[58] The Canadian historian Charlotte Gray noted in fact most of the prostitutes in Toronto were not forced into sexual slavery, but was rather chose to engage in prostitution due to poverty as many occupations were closed to women and wages in those that were open to women were significantly lower than offered to men.[59] The area of Toronto that the newspapers were mostly concerned was an impoverished district known as "the Ward" that was bordered by College, Jarvis, University and Yonge streets.[59] "The Ward" was mostly inhabited by Italian, Jewish, Finnish, Polish, West Indian and Chinese immigrants that was painted in lurid terms by the newspapers as a center of organized crime add depravity in general that was threatening society.[59] Gray cautioned that such newspaper coverage of "the Ward" reflected more the prejudices of the era than its reality.[60]

By the early 1900s, the "Black Hand" had followed Italian immigrants to Toronto as it had in most major North American cities at the time. In 1907, in a much publicized case, a wealthy Toronto woman received a letter demanding she pay $500 dollars to the "Brotherhood of the Black Hand" while warning if she contracted the police or the media "you and your husband will be murdered and your house will be blown up".[61] Italian organized crime remains prevalent, with the Calabrian 'Ndrangheta such as the Siderno Group, as well as the Sicilian Mafia.[62] During prohibition, Toronto became a major center for bootlegging operations into the United States, which also saw an increased presence of Italian-American organized crime — specifically the Buffalo crime family. The existence of the Mafia in Toronto was ignored in the post-war era until the late 1960s by the media and the police. The murders of two Toronto businessmen, namely Salvatore Trumbari on 6 January 1967 and his former employee Filippo Vendemini on 29 June 1969, first brought public attention to the subject.[63] Subsequently, it was established that both Trumbari and Vendemini were involved in organized crime, being engaged in bootlegging (bars and liquor stores closed early in Ontario at the time. making bootlegging profitable).[64] Starting in the late 1960s, many businesses in Toronto's Little Italy neighborhoods who refused to pay extortion money or alternatively were late in their payments were the victims of arson while their employees were assaulted.[64] Three brothers, Cosimo, Ernest and Anthony Commisso who owned several bakeries in Toronto were targeted for refusing to pay "taxes". On 17 July 1968, the home of Cosimo Commisso was shot up; on 29 March 1969 the home of Ernest Commisso was broken into and vandalized; on 31 March 1969 a bakery owned by the brothers was blown up; and on 2 June 1969 Anthony Commisso was shot five times in his legs.[64] Toronto police reports show that in 1970 alone 32 Little Italy businesses were burned down in cases of mob-related arson.[64] In 1970, the Toronto Mafiosi, Rocco Zito met with Vic Cotroni and Paolo Violi of Montreal's Cotroni family, and Paulo Gambino, the brother of Carlo Gambino of New York's Gambino family.[63] Zito established a "pipeline" for smuggling heroin via Montreal and Toronto to New York.[63] An article in the Toronto Star on 7 July 1972 linked most of the cases of bombings, arson and assaults in Little Italy to the Siderno Group, which was described as being the most aggressive of all the Mafia-type groups in Toronto.[65]

Starting in 1945, the prosperity of the "long summer" economic boom that ended with the Arab oil shock of 1973-74 led to an enormous construction boom in Toronto. Most of the construction contractors in Toronto were immigrants from the Mezzogiorno (the south of Italy) while most of the construction workers were also Italian immigrants.[66] In the Mezzogiorno, paying off groups such as the Mafia and the 'Ndrangheta is seen as a normal business cost. Italian organized crime groups infiltrated and took over the Toronto construction industry in the 1960s.[66] In 1974, a Royal Commission headed by Justice Harold Waisberg in its report examining the influence of organized crime in the Toronto construction industry stated that starting in 1968 "a sinister array of characters were introduced to this industry".[66] A key moment occurred in May 1971 when Cesido Rommanilli, one of Toronto's largest construction contractors, agreed to hire Natale Luppino of Hamilton's Luppino crime family as his "escort" in exchange for which the Luppino family would intimidate Rommanilli's workers and take over their unions.[66] Luppino then took over the unions, who were demanding wage increases that Rommanilli did not want to give them.[66] At the same time, the Mafiosi Paul Volpe was hired by A. Gus Simone of Local 562 of the International Lathers Union to help "persuade" other construction unions to join the Lathers union.[66] Accordingly, to Toronto police reports, between 1968 and 1972 at construction sites in Toronto there occurred 234 cases of major "willful damage", 23 cases of arson, 15 cases of mob-related assault, 5 explosions, and numerous cases of the theft of construction materials.[66] Bruno Zanini, a journalist investigating Mafia influence in the construction industry was wounded in 1972 in an assassination attempt.[67] In his report on 19 December 1974, Justice Waisberg concluded that the construction industry in Toronto had been taken over by the Mafia and a climate of fear reigned in the construction sites.[67]

The Siderno Group had also moved into the Toronto construction industry and in particular specialized in taking over bids to build public buildings in order to inflate the costs with the additional costs being profit to them.[68] The Toronto-based Commisso 'ndrina clan of the Siderno group were described by the end of 1970s as running a crime empire that "imported and distributed heroin with the Vancouver mob and the Calabrian Mafia in Italy, fenced stolen goods across North America, printed and distributed counterfeit money throughout Canada and the United States, ran a vast extortion network in Ontario, arranged insurance and land frauds in the Toronto area and engaged in contract killings and contract enforcement work across Canada and the United States– the whole gamut of violent criminal activities one usually associates with the Mafia".[68] Cecil Kirby, a biker who worked as an enforcer and a hitman for the Commisso 'ndrina between 1976-1981 wrote in his 1986 book Mafia Enforcer: "I quickly learned that their big thing for making money was the construction industry. They probably made more money from extortions in the construction industry than they did from trafficking in heroin - and it was a helluva lot safer".[68] The Commisso 'ndrina clan was led by the three Commisso brothers, Rocco, Michele and Cosimo, whose principle interest in life besides for making money was avenging the murder of their father, Girolomo Commisso, who had killed in 1948 in Siderno by rival gangsters.[69]

In the summer of 1995, a biker war broke out between the Loners Motorcycle Club led by Gennaro "Jimmy" Raso vs. the Diablos led by Frank Lenti for the control of the drug trade.[70] The Diablos were supported by Satan's Choice Motorcycle Club led by Bernie Guindon.[70] On 18 July 1995, a Diablo incinerated a tow truck owned by a Loner with a homemade bomb; in retaliation two Diablos were shot and wounded by the Loners on the streets of Toronto.[70] On 1 August 1995, the Satan's Choice clubhouse in Toronto was hit by a rocket fired from a rocker launcher, and two weeks later the Loners' clubhouse was likewise hit by a rocket launcher.[70] On 25 August 1995, Lenti was badly wounded by a bomb planted in his car, which marked the end of the biker war as his club collapsed as he recovered from his injuries during a prolonged stay in a hospital.[71] The mayor of Toronto, Barbara Hall, who was not aware that the biker war was over, attempted to ban all outlaw bikers from the city limits of Toronto.[71] The journalist Jerry Langton wrote the "frequently hysterical Toronto media" vastly exaggerated the amount of biker war violence, which in turn led to Hall's overreaction.[71] Hall's attempt to close Satan's Choice Toronto clubhouse failed owning to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which led her to instead try to have the city of Toronto buy the clubhouse in order to close it.[71] Satan's Choice set a preposterously high price for their clubhouse, which caused much controversy in Toronto when Hall stated her willingness to have the city pay it.[71] The controversy is believed to have been a factor in Hall's defeat in her 1997 reelection bid as the media took to mockingly calling Hall "Biker Barb".[72]

In the summer of 2000, the Hells Angels national president Walter Stadnick made an offer to most Ontario outlaw biker clubs to join the Hells Angels on a "patch for patch" basis (i.e joining the Hells Angels with patches equivalent to their current patches) provided that they did so by the end of the year.[73] On 29 December 2000, in a ceremony at the Hells Angels' "mother chapter" clubhouse in Sorel, most of the Ontario outlaw biker gangs such as Satan's Choice, the Vagabonds, the Lobos, the Last Chance, the Para-Dice Riders and some of the Loners all joined the Hells Angels, making them at one stroke the dominant outlaw biker club in Ontario.[74] As a result of the mass "patch-over" in Sorel, with 168 outlaw bikers becoming Hells Angels, the greater Toronto area went from having no Hells Angels chapters to having the highest concentration of Hells Angels' chapters in the world.[74] On 12 January 2002, a Hells Angels convention in Toronto was gate-clashed by the mayor of Toronto, Mel Lastman, who was photographed shaking hands with an Angel, Tony Biancaflora, and the mayor told the media that the Angels were "fantastic" for bringing so much "business" to Toronto, saying: "You know, they're just a nice bunch of guys".[75] Lastman's comments caused immense controversy in Toronto.[76]

Today, the multicultural face of Toronto is well reflected in the city's underworld, which includes everything from Jamaican posses to Eastern European bratvas and to American biker gangs. The genesis of many foreign criminal organizations in Toronto has often been linked to the drug trade, as with the large influx of heroin and various Asian triads during the 1970s,[77] or cocaine and South American cartels in the 1980s.[78] These criminal groups, however, occasionally have a political bent as well, as with the Tamil organized crime groups such as the VVT and rival AK Kannan gangs, which warred with each other in the city's streets during the 1990s and early 2000s over the brown heroin trade.[79] In recent decades, Toronto has also seen an infiltration of major American street gangs such as the Bloods, Crips, and Mara Salvatrucha.

There has also been recent evidence of significant cooperation between major organized crime groups including in gambling. In 2013 the Platinum Sportsbook a sports betting ring, thought have brought in over $100 million in revenue, was a joint venture between Hells Angels, Italian Mafia and Asian organized crime figures.[80] Most of what is described as being "Mafia" activity in Toronto is more properly the work of the Calabrian 'Ndrangheta, whose operations in Toronto are headed by seven "families" that are reportedly organized into a board.[81] By contrast, organized crime in Montreal is dominated by the Sicilian Mafia, especially the Rizzuto family.[81] According to an Italian police report in July 2010, the "entire complex criminal organization" in Canada is all ultimately under the control of the Rizzuto family.[81]

Critics have argued that organized crime has been allowed to flourish in Canadian cities such as Toronto due to the difficulty and cost of prosecuting organized crime cases compared with individual cases, and the flexible minimum sentencing and the double time served stipulations that the judicial system utilizes to unburden the penal system. Today, Toronto has become a center for a wide array of organized and transnational criminal activities, including the counterfeiting of currency, bank cards, and digital entertainment products, together with telemarketing fraud and the production of marijuana and synthetic drugs.[78] Toronto also has a comparable rate of car theft to various U.S. cities, although this is lower than in some other Canadian cities. Much of this has been attributed to organized crime, with stolen vehicles ending up being shipped overseas for sale.

Youth gangs[edit]

Early history[edit]

In his 1945 book Street Gangs in Toronto: A Study of the Forgotten Boy,[82] Kenneth H. Rogers identified the following gangs active at that time in the following areas of the city:

  • Moss Park - Riverdale: Brown Gang, Grey Gang, Porter Gang
  • Withrow Park: Beavers, Britch Gang, Graphic Gang (Rogers refers to at least 4 other unnamed gangs in this area)
  • North Toronto: Evans Gang, King Gang, Wunkies
  • Rosedale: Arnot Gang, Basket Gang, Black Gang, Green Gang, Grey Gang (Rogers refers to 2 other unnamed gangs in this area)
  • Bathurst & Queen: Aces Gang, Aggies, Bridge Gang, Cardinal Group, George Gang, Harris Gang, Mix Gang, Park Gang, Rustler Gang, Trapper Gang

Most of these gangs were simply loose-knit groups of juvenile delinquents involved mainly in low-level, petty crimes such as gambling, shop-lifting, and pick-pocketing (Rogers was actually robbed by members of the King Gang while attempting to interview them). The composition of the gangs were mainly poor Caucasian youth of British descent, although some were more ethnically diverse such as the George Gang (Jewish), the Mix Gang (black), and the Aggies (Polish & Ukrainian). Toronto in the 1940s was a city whose population was of overwhelmingly Anglo-Irish descent with people whose families originated from the British isles making up 86% of the population while people whose families originated elsewhere made up 13% of the population.[83] Not until the 1950-1960s following changes in immigration law did a significant number of people of non-British origin began to settle in Toronto, gradually changing Toronto from a city whose people were mostly of British descent into a city that is one of the most multicultural in North America.[83]

Current prevalence of youth gangs[edit]

Rates of youth gang activity in Toronto can be challenging to measure due to conflicting definitions of gangs, the smaller size of youth gangs, and their looser organization.[84] Some research found 11% of Toronto high school students and 27% of Toronto homeless youth identified as being gang members at some point in their lives.[85] Other research found under 6% of high school students and 16% of street youth identify as current gang members — but that only 4% of students and 15% of street youth were involved in gangs of a criminal (rather than social) nature.[86]

Criminal activity[edit]

One study has reported that approximately 2,400 high school students in Toronto claim to have carried a gun at least once between 2004 and 2005.[85] Research has found that most youth gang-related crime consists of property offenses,[87] drugs sales, drug use, and physical conflicts with other gangs. Social activities are more widely reported amongst self-identified youth gang members than criminal activities.[86] Murder and other more grievous types of crime are uncommon.[87]

Demographics of youth gang members[edit]

Although most youth gang members are male, mixed-gender and female youth gangs also exist.[87] Youth from lower-income families are more likely to self-identify as gang members,[86] but membership cuts across lower, middle and upper income categories.[87] One study found that although black, Asian and Hispanic youth in Toronto are more likely to report gang activity than youth of other ethnicities, 27% of criminal youth gang members self-identify as white (followed by 23% black, 3% Aboriginal, 18% South Asian, 17% East Asian, 5% Middle Eastern and 7% Hispanic). A correlation has not been found between youth gang membership and immigration status.[86] Gang-involved youth commonly report a history of abuse and/or neglect, poverty, dysfunctional families, isolation, school failure, and other psychosocial issues.[87]

Community and police response[edit]

Efforts to reduce youth gang crime have included police raids,[88] government & social programs,[84] and camera surveillance of public housing projects.[84]

See also[edit]

Books and articles[edit]

  • Gray, Charlotte (2013). The Massey Murder: A Maid, Her Master and the Trial that Shocked a Country. Toronto: HarperCollins. ISBN 9781443409254.
  • Langton, Jerry (2010). Showdown: How the Outlaws, Hells Angels and Cops Fought for Control of the Streets. Toronto: John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 978-0470678787.
  • Martel, Marcel (2014). Canada the Good A Short History of Vice Since 1500. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press. ISBN 9781554589487.
  • Schneider, Stephen (2009). Iced The Story of Organized Crime in Canada. Toronto: John Wiley & Songs. ISBN 9780470835005.
  • Sher, Julian; Marsden, William (2003). The Road To Hell How the Biker Gangs Are Conquering Canada. Toronto: Alfred Knopf. ISBN 0-676-97598-4.


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