The arrest of Christopher Husbands, the accused in the Eaton Centre shooting, has been a PR nightmare for police. Photo by Chris Young/ CP Photo
When Christopher Husbands, the lone accused in the Eaton Centre shooting finally appeared in Old City Hall courtroom 101 Monday afternoon, June 4, to be remanded in custody on one charge of first degree murder and six more of attempted murder, the view would be short-lived.
Husbands's lawyer, positioning herself just so, held open a large notebook to block his face.
Odd move, you might think, but the desired effect was achieved, artists' renderings of Husbands in the papers the next day looking nothing like the alleged gunman. The photos of Husbands being ushered into Old City Hall after surrendering to police early Monday showed him in a hoodie pulled tightly over his head.
No small consideration when you consider the outrage the shooting has generated and the fact that the cops' case against Husbands will rely heavily on eyewitness accounts and video surveillance footage from CCTV cameras in the Eaton Centre food court. The fewer the images of the alleged author of the most notorious daylight shooting in recent memory, the better the chances of not prejudicing a future jury pool. In the court of public opinion Husbands is guilty as charged.
The cops, though, continue to build their case, a fact Detective Sergeant Brian Borg took pains to make clear at a press conference announcing Husbands's arrest Monday. A website has been set up for members of the public who may have been in the Eaton Centre food court on the evening in question to upload videos or pictures of the event.
This case is no slam dunk, the weaknesses of video evidence being what they are.
Comparisons have been made to the 2005 Boxing Day shooting of Jane Creba. Some suspects in that case walked despite video evidence. To put it plainly, Toronto police don't have what you'd call an enviable track record when it comes to high-profile cases.
How much they can rely on those who were there or may know something about Husbands's relationship to his victim, Ahmed Hassan, is anyone's guess. Relations are strained between police and kids in poorer neighbourhoods.
Saturday's shooting inside the single largest tourist draw in what's supposed to be the safest city on the continent can't be called an isolated incident. While the reasons for gun violence are complicated, this event signifies something more ominous - an inevitable spillover of the larger problem of the way we police challenged neighbourhoods.
For Toronto police, the Eaton Centre shooting has been a public relations nightmare. And their spin isn't fooling anyone, least of all the usual suspects among conservative commentators usually eager to run with the cop narrative.
Usually it's the cops pushing the panic button, eager to capitalize on gun violence as evidence of the need to stuff cop coffers with more money. But on this one the tables have been turned. It's the cops advising caution, distilling Saturday's events down to, as Deputy Chief Jeff McGuire stated, "one idiot with a gun."
McGuire was more careful in his choice of words at Monday's presser, cognizant of the fact that his "idiot" comment seemed to minimize the fact that seven people were hit by bullets, one of them a 13-year-old boy.
But he insisted, "It's important that we not allow ourselves to become too alarmist and jump to conclusions and make assessments about heightened levels of danger. I'm not going to bore you with statistics. The numbers are what they are. The safety of this city has been improved."
When it was Borg's turn to take the mic, the spin was a little harder to fathom. He called the shooting "targeted" but not "gang-motivated... even though there are several persons who have now been identified in this case as being known gang members or who have gang associations."
Admittedly, some of the media coverage has been predictably sensational and clichéd - perhaps a hangover from that other big crime story of the week, the one involving some depraved YouTube aficionado named Luka Magnotta. The Second Coming of the Summer of the Gun the Eaton Centre shooting may not be.
When Sergeant Blatch, aka National Post columnist Christie Blatchford, calls her former colleagues at the Sun out for suggesting we're on the precipice of an "apocalypse," you gotta know we've entered the Twilight Zone.
A strange shroud of secrecy has enveloped this case. It's not known what gun was used or if one has even been recovered. Reports suggest Hassan was on the lam, a fugitive from charges in Edmonton, but the cop response to that is that he may not be the same guy, Hassan being a common name among Somali Canadians.
Chief Bill Blair's absence after his initial involvement on the scene Saturday - he's at a conference in Japan - hasn't gone unnoticed either.
The stats on shootings so far this year may not bear out what McGuire characterizes as the "alarmist" view, at least not completely. The chief's spokesperson, Mark Pugash, notes that the number involving serious injury are down by a little more than 7 per cent.
But there's no denying the exponential surge in the number of incidents of reported gunfire (where police say there have been no injuries) compared to last year: 107.1 per cent increase, to be precise.
Under the Toronto Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy (TAVIS) set up in the wake of the Summer of the Gun, the cops did an effective job of collapsing gang structures that were beginning to take root in a significant way in housing projects throughout Toronto.
But the gangbangers they put behind bars five and seven years ago are now back on the street.
Regent Park revitalization and the resulting movement of folks in and out of that neighbourhood, some bad actors among them, has caused the blurring of clear boundaries that used to keep gang members in clearly marked territories. There's more cross-pollination now between gang groupings on either side of Yonge downtown, particularly between Alexandra Park and Regent Park.
But perhaps most importantly, the elements of community policing so effective in building relationships between cops and kids are beginning to slip.
There have been a lot of changes in downtown police divisions. The movement of cops in and out of poor areas has eroded trust, which is tenuous at the best of times. While TAVIS has been an effective tool in combatting gangs, it's also a blunt instrument, and some good kids are getting caught up in police raids.
Even worse, youth workers relate stories of good kids in those neighbourhoods being left to feel they're fending for themselves. Cops seem content to let gangbangers settle their own scores, leaving law-abiding residents caught in the middle.
Police say there's no connection between the Eaton Centre shooting and another that took place at Alexandra Park earlier the same day. But the suspect in that incident is a known associate of the man who was with Hassan when all hell broke loose Saturday. He's in hospital recovering from gunshot wounds.
The socioeconomic contributors to gun violence can't be ignored either.
While cuts in youth services and the disappearance of millions from youth engagement and employment programs this summer may not wholly explain the increased gunplay so far this year, chopping opportunities in challenged neighbourhoods clearly isn't helping the situation.
On that count, Rob Ford must share the blame.
It's his administration that's behind the cuts. And the mayor continues to say he won't support more funding for youth services - a jaw-dropper considering his famed work with troubled kids through football. His advice to Torontonians: Don't worry, be happy, go shopping.
Clearly, something is breaking down. If you'd seen the wannabe gangstas hanging outside courtroom 101 during Husbands's bail hearing, you'd know that.