One of a gaggle of youth who have sneaked into a community meeting, the girl asks a police officer if he can fix the fountain in the common area.
Sgt. Chris Laush explains the fountain is not a policing problem. He tells the girl there is a complaints system through the management who run the complex. Then, as Laush looks to the crowd for the next question, he sees the crestfallen look on her face.
Laush, a dad himself, tells her he will be back in two days and he’ll talk to management about it.
The Toronto police officer is the leader of a year-old, six-member team called the Somali Liaison Unit, an unusual attempt at curbing violent crime in 23 Division. The area in northwest Toronto consistently has one of the city’s highest crime rates.
Ever since a guns and gangs raid called Project Traveller burst into numerous apartments in July, his unit has redoubled its efforts in two predominantly Somali communities in Rexdale — Dixon and Queensplate — to try to rebuild a fractured trust.
Members of the unit say even colleagues don’t understand what they do — a unique brand of policing that looks more like social work and harks back to old-school neighbourhood policing. This in a time of budget cuts, when “community policing” largely refers to controversial preventative measures such as the Toronto Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy (TAVIS).
“We look at this as our community,” Laush tells the fewer than two dozen adults and handful of children who showed up at the August community meeting. “We understand there’s other problems.”
Rexdale has been a traditional landing spot for immigrants from Somalia since civil war broke out in the East African nation more than two decades ago. Rapper K’naan called the Dixon Rd. community home before he wrote “Wavin’ Flag.”
Today, Canada has the largest Somali diaspora outside of Africa. Statistics Canada figures show more than 1,000 Somali immigrants came to Toronto between 2006 and 2011 alone.
Since June, the police team has been walking, talking and praying with the Dixon and Queensplate communities, in an effort to encourage residents to see them as willing to help.
After Project Traveller largely focused on the Dixon community, targeting the Dixon City Bloods gang, Supt. Ron Taverner, the unit commander of 23 Division, put additional members on the team.
“When we started it, it was to deal with some of the community issues and the level of violence that was taking place, particularly in Dixon Rd., with sounds of gunshots and people being shot and all those sorts of things,” Taverner said.
Statistics suggest those efforts were successful in reducing crime calls to the complexes where they work. But Taverner said that, more broadly, it’s difficult to draw a quantifiable link between such community partnerships and the absence of crime.
Taverner has committed the unit to two more years in the community as part of a force-wide neighbourhood initiative.
“I think we have to be open-minded enough to think that there are other ways to do business,” he said. “Maybe there’s better ways to prevent crime.”
On a sunny fall afternoon as school lets out, the whole team walks through the Dixon complex — a series of six apartment buildings spread across two courtyards, where more than a dozen doors were kicked in three months ago during the Project Traveller raids.
The officers, with help from volunteers, recently built a library on the ground floor of one tower, in an unused room that now holds tables and hundreds of donated books. Mothers and young women from the community now use it for an after-school homework and reading club. On a Thursday, it’s packed with elementary students doing arithmetic and writing examples of “responsibility” and “irresponsibility” in two columns.
“The most important thing is just to see people using it now,” said Const. Ramdeep Sandhu, who, as a mother herself, was shocked to learn there were children who couldn’t read despite being in school. “It took the whole team. It took a lot of effort.”
As she hovers, in uniform, over several little girls, one explains to her friend: “Guns are made for safety.”
There have been other small but positive changes — like keeping the lights on at a nearby basketball court until 1 a.m. so teens can keep playing.
Const. Ammar Khan, who has been with the unit since January, is a smooth talker to whom kids gravitate in the halls. A Muslim, he’s been praying alongside regulars at a local mosque to better understand the community.
A small boy, returning from school, runs to shake his hand. Khan has the black spray paint he promised he’d bring along, to fix the boy’s donated pink and purple bike. He’ll spend nearly 20 minutes touching up several local kids’ rides in the courtyard.
It’s these youngsters the force hopes will grow up to succeed — maybe even become police officers. That’s an idea the officers have pushed in recent months, as they plan a recruitment session targeting Somali Canadians in November. Currently the force only has two officers of Somali background, rookies who aren’t yet assigned to Rexdale.
In a community torn between welcoming the eradication of violence and resenting police for busting down doors and cultural insensitivity, the unit’s recent efforts appear to be welcome.
Inside a Dixon Rd. computer room with more than a dozen desktops for public use, resident Ayan Omar said she’s glad for the team’s help, but sees rebuilding the community after the raids as something that has to be done from within.
“We want our name back,” the mother said. “At least now there’s hope and people feel more safe . . . It’s just convincing the youth that the police are here to help us.”
Camieka Woodhouse, coordinator of the Youth Justice Initiative at the Rexdale Community Legal Clinic, said the unit reached out, early on, requesting support in making their work meaningful.
“I know that there have been efforts made to include community partners,” she said. “One of their greatest, I guess, struggles at this point is engaging the older kids . . . That is something that has to be dealt with systemically.”
Woodhouse said it will take more than just one initiative to “mend the bridge” between police and the community.
Over a quick break for chili chicken before the officers move to the Queensplate complex, Const. Horace Harvey, who has been on the unit since the beginning, said he has hope they’re making a difference.
“After the raid, I think we did so much that hasn’t been done before,” he said. “We’re doing more than a job. It’s humanity work.”