Unsolved: Cracking Toronto police’s colour-coded murder problem

The Tess Richey case reveals bias in police handling of murder investigations, but it’s cases involving Black men that expose the biggest disparities



It’s said that homicide is so heinous a crime, so brutal an affront to civil society, that whenever or wherever it occurs, the state is compelled to use all available means necessary to bring those responsible to justice.

Due in part to the ever-present power of the internet and social media, we are now witnesses – often in real time – to the gruesome realities of murder in ways we’ve never been before.

This hyper-exposure can make it hard to believe that homicide numbers have actually been in steady decline across North America since the mid-70s.

According to Statistics Canada, homicide rates have fallen by 44 per cent since peaking in 1975, remaining at around 1.68 homicides per 100,000 people as of 2016. Relatively speaking, at least for those not touched by it, homicide remains a rare occurrence.

But while there are fewer murders, fewer are also being solved, including by Toronto police. It’s a troubling state of affairs made more so by the fact that, where Toronto police’s handling of homicide cases is concerned, it seems that some lives are worth more than others.

Toronto police’s PR problem

Homicide clearance rates, the term used to denote investigations that have identified a suspect or resulted in criminal charges (but not necessarily a conviction), have been on a downward trajectory for years, and in particular since the 1990s with the increase in gang-related violence in Toronto.

The Toronto Police Service’s (TPS) homicide clearance rate was close to 95 per cent in the 1960s. That number dipped to 41 per cent in 2017, with 36 of the city’s 61 homicides unsolved.  (See graph below). Today, annual clearance rates hover around 66 per cent – and significantly lower than that when looking at homicides involving guns in marginalzied communities. 

Chief Mark Saunders, who served as head of the homicide squad before he became Toronto’s top cop in 2015, has in the past dodged questions on what is a sensitive topic for Toronto police’s once-storied homicide unit. In a 2011 interview with the Toronto Star, he rejected the idea that more Black homicide officers might help solve crimes related to gang violence.

But more recently he’s been making apologies for his force’s tepid response to a number of murders and missing persons reports in the gay village – among them, the murder of 22-year-old Tess Richey, whose body was found by her mother December 4, just days after her disappearance was reported to police. Richey was found in a stairwell less than a block from the hot dog stand at Church and Wellesley where she had last been reported seen by friends. A neighbourhood “safe walk program” has since been organized by local residents who have characterized the TPS’s handling of Richey’s case – and five others involving gay men in the area – as incompetent and disinterested.

Skandaraj Navaratnam, Abdulbasir Faizi, Majeed Kayhan, Selim Esen and Andrew Kinsman – all gay men, four of them racialized – have been missing from the village and presumed murdered. Police have set up two task forces: one to investigate the disappearances of the first three men and, more recently, one related to Esen and Kinsman. But communications on the status of the investigations, some of which date back to 2010, have been slow and opaque.

At a December 8 press conference ostensibly called to defuse the public relations nightmare for Toronto police, Saunders announced that he has asked the professional standards unit to review the force’s handling of all missing persons cases.

Saunders did not want to comment on specific factors that could have been at play in the Richey and other cases – “I don’t want to make any assumptions” – but seemed at one point to chalk up failures in the investigation to call intake – “an element of sensitivity is necessary, as busy as we may be” – as well as workload, pointing out that police respond to some 4,000 missing persons reports a year.

He admitted, however, on the need for “stronger connections” and “stronger relationships” with the public as “the key to our success” in solving homicides.

Policing observers point to the sociological factors influencing the challenges faced by police in solving homicide investigations: where victims live, what they do or don’t do for a living and whether they’re poor. But the Richey case has also exposed inherent biases in the police handling of homicide investigations. Richey, for example, was described as an “escort” (erroneously the family says) by anonymous police sources quoted in the Toronto Sun. And the family of Alloura Wells, a transgender woman who was reported missing in November, were told by police that the case “was not high priority” because she had been homeless for a number of years. 

But it’s on the issue of race that the biggest disparities show up in police clearance rates.

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Snow-covered memorial at the top of the stairwell near Church Street where Tess Richey’s body was found by her mother.


Colour-coding the cold case files

Genevieve Alao remembers her older brother, Val, who was murdered in Toronto in 2002, as a natural-born leader. But after their parents split up in 1998, there would be frequent run-ins with the law, including arrests and stints in jail.

More than 15 years later, details surrounding Val’s murder remain sketchy. He left Ajax with some friends just before 9 pm, heading to Toronto by car. At some point, he used his cellphone to call home, leaving a long and meandering voice message. He was found just before 1 am the next morning in an alley off of Allenvale Avenue in the city’s west end, suffering from close-range gunshot wounds. He died shortly after being taken to the hospital.

Alao is one of more than 600 people murdered in Toronto since 1959 on the TPS “cold case” database, which was revamped in 2016 to present detailed information including photos of the deceased, location of their murder, gender and so on. Each case holds its own mystery and power. As someone who’s interested in statistics, I decided to code them for race (based on the photo), age, police division in which their murder occurred, gender and cause of death, to gain a clearer understanding of what I was looking at.

I found that three TPS police divisions with large Black populations – 31, which includes the Jane-Finch area, 23 in north Etobicoke and 51 downtown – have the highest number of unsolved homicides in the city. Over 85 per cent of the cases involved male victims. Most of them died from gunshot wounds. Most of them are also Black. By my count, close to 50 per cent of the unsolved murder cases in Toronto since 1959 involve Black victims. That’s some 300 murders that no one has been held accountable for in a community that represents less than 10 per cent of the general population.

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Labelling Black victims as gang members

Race and homicide have long been intertwined in Canada. Consider the history of missing and murdered Indigenous women. But recently, we’ve seen patterns related to murder that compare to apartheid-era South Africa, according to Humber College criminologist Doug Thomson, who researched clearance rates in South Africa in the 1990s, and sees similar disparities emerging in Toronto when it comes to justice for Black victims.

“One of the huge problems here is that we label Black male victims as gang members who live at Jane and Finch, and people say ‘Who cares?’”

Sociological explanations provide much-needed context for homicide clearance rates, but they don’t adequately illuminate the true impact that unsolved murders have on communities.

“When someone is murdered, the whole community feels it,” says Wayne Smith, a long-time Jane-Finch resident active in the community. “It causes everyone to feel disturbed, to lose a sense of security.”

When investigations fail to deliver a suspect, people are not surprised, says Smith. “You almost don’t expect an arrest. It’s become something you live with.”

To be sure, over recent years the pain that comes with unsolved murder has been mostly expressed by mothers in the Black community.

Audette Shephard and Julia Farquharson have publicly raised awareness, but there are hundreds of other families who bear their loss privately.

University of California, Berkeley doctoral student Ina Kelleher’s dissertation focuses on how Black mothers are often made into symbolic figureheads for communities impacted by homicide. Kelleher says that in cases of homicides that go unsolved, what remains is a feeling of abandonment, as well as the disturbing sense that grieving mothers are more invested than the police in solving cases involving Black victims.

“This violence and the inability to solve homicides leads to severed ties and wears on the kinship that these communities rely on,” says Kelleher. “Mothers have told me the most painful thing is seeing the people responsible for homicides living their lives out normally. They see them on Facebook and social media, and it causes them a lot of pain.”

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Chief Mark Saunders was at times defensive during a December 8 press conference announcing a probe into police handling of missing persons cases.


Meting out street justice

Why is this happening? Toronto police have a two-part theory. Part one has to do with the proliferation of guns and gangs.

With firearms, murders can be committed at a reasonably removed distance (making the culprits harder to identify) compared to stabbings and other close-proximity violent crimes. Police say this leaves less evidence to work with. There is also the mountain of evidence collected from today’s crime scenes that detectives must comb through. This may include the victim’s phone records or surveillance video, all of which takes time to process – precisely what homicide detectives don’t have in abundance during those critical first 48 to 72 hours after a murder.

Part two posits that communities most affected by shootings and homicides are those least likely to cooperate with police investigations. Without the help of the community and witnesses, police say they have a very challenging job in trying to solve murders where gunplay is involved. At the December 8 press conference, Saunders called public safety “a shared responsibility.”

But there is a third theory, one that police are reluctant to talk about: the eroding public trust in police in communities most affected by crime via initiatives like TAVIS, the Toronto Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy, carding and headline-grabbing blitzes.

These heavy-handed tactics, once hailed by police as effective crime prevention strategies, have worsened relations in vulnerable communities that experience high rates of violence, complicating community cooperation, which, as any detective will tell you, remains the cornerstone of a successful homicide investigation.

The idea that some homicide victims are viewed as less important than others, thereby resulting in perfunctory, slow and ultimately unsuccessful investigations, has long held sway in the minds of people impacted most by unsolved homicides.

But TPS Detective Sergeant Stacy Gallant, who leads the force’s cold case unit, vehemently rejects this view.

“Every homicide that happens in Toronto is investigated by high-level detectives for the sole purpose of solving that crime,” says Gallant, a 28-year veteran of the force.

Asked if the massive over-representation of Black victims in the cold case database causes him any concern, the former homicide detective says simply, “the numbers speak for themselves.”

Do detectives handle cases like Alao’s differently? Do people who are “known to police” have less chance of having their murder case solved? On this, Gallant is matter of fact.

“We follow the leads where they go. But once they dry up, they dry up. We can’t force people to be witnesses.”

But one longtime youth worker in Regent Park doesn’t buy that explanation. He asks: “How is it that people in the community know who committed murders but the police can’t make an arrest? I know two guys who should be charged with murder right now, and they’re walking the street.”

Gallant agrees that there are currently “a number of cases where we have credible street information or intelligence. But it’s not evidence that will stand up in court.”

This perceived inaction on the part of the police is not without consequences. A Toronto-based community pastor who has counselled young men involved in gangs – and who also asked to remain anonymous – says seeming police inaction encourages people to administer their own forms of justice.

“People see that the police won’t do much, so they take matters into their own hands,” he says. “Sadly, deadly scores are settled one way or another.”

It doesn’t have to be this way

City councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam, whose ward includes the gay village, says concerns about deteriorating community-police relations are indicative of an entrenched police culture that is not always responsive to the experiences of marginalized communities.

“From the community members I’ve heard from, there seems to be a range of police response times to different issues,” says Wong-Tam.

Wong-Tam says she’s had her own personal experiences with police that left her feeling dismissed. These encounters have caused her to wonder about the experiences of people who have far less privilege than she does.

“Imagine if you are homeless, or someone who is engaged in sex work, or someone who uses drugs, or is Black or Indigenous. Those interactions with the police are not always pleasant.”

It doesn’t have to be this way. Other jurisdictions have found ways to improve homicide clearance rates despite similar problems with guns and gangs.

In the U.S., where clearance rates have consistently averaged around 61 per cent, the Boston Police Department’s homicide unit committed to changing how it went about solving murders through a unit-wide intervention that included hiring more investigators, improving investigative techniques and deploying civilian staff to handle some of the legwork. The department experienced a 10 per cent increase in clearance rates between 2012 and 2014, after lagging far behind the national average.

Similarly, in Richmond, Virginia, police have introduced witness protection programs to deliver the highest clearance rate in the country, at 75 per cent in 2016. And in Chicago, police are using data to predict individuals at-risk of offending in an effort to get them into social programs.

These examples show one simple truth about solving murders: what police do or don’t do is key.

Los Angeles Times reporter Jill Leovy disrupts the lack of community cooperation thesis in her 2015 book, Ghettoside, a chronicle of unsolved murders in Los Angeles.

The book demonstrates that to solve murders, investigators must genuinely know the communities they work in. They can’t be parachuted in, as is usually the case in Toronto and where homicide officers continue to work in pairs, as opposed to as a unit. Homicide detectives have to know people in the community by first name, and they have to access those relationships to bolster the work of combing through, over and under every piece of available evidence.

Leovy shows that getting community members to come forward, both initially as witnesses and later in court, depends entirely on trust and familiarity that is built up over years.

The TPS’s 2017 Transformational Task Force report suggests this is the kind of policing the service aspires to. The report talks up a much-needed culture change that leads to “trust-based relationships with all communities” and improved allocation of resources and technology.

But until that happens, blaming affected communities for the police’s failure to solve homicides won’t cut it when there’s discrimination at the core of how homicide investigations are carried out.

“Look at whose murders get the media interest and whose don’t,” says one former Toronto police officer. “Does that impact the investigation’s trajectory? Sure it does.”

But isn’t there a systematic ticking of boxes that should prevent this? Isn’t every murder case processed through the same methodical steps?

“Cases get solved by strong evidence and by doing the extra things,” he says. “When the deceased is a known gang member, detectives are often not that motivated. They’re not necessarily going to go that extra mile.”

This rings true for Genevieve Alao. She felt the police didn’t really care about solving her brother’s murder. “There was only one interview,” she says. “They never called to do a follow-up. No one ever called to say, ‘I’m working on something related to the case and I want to discuss it with you.’

“I don’t expect justice to be done,” she adds. “I actually had to let go of that idea in order to heal.” 

Neil Price is a doctoral student at OISE and author of the Community Assessment of Police Practices report on carding.

news@nowtoronto.com | @nowtoronto

Updated Thursday, January 11, 9:11 am: An earlier version of this story misstated that Alloura Wells’s death was a homicide. Police have yet to determine a cause of death.

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