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Taxi murders, youth-on-youth torture, murder and serial rapists dominate the news in the city once known as "Toronto the Good." Even the city's in-coming police chief, Julian Fantino, has warned that Toronto has turned ugly.

Making matters worse, says Fantino, is a frightening escalation of youth violence. Indeed, with horrific stories like that of 15-year-old Matthew Baranovski, a child of Russian Jewish descent who was brutally kicked and beaten to death by a masked group of young thugs in a north Toronto park, and reports of teen-age girls kidnapping another girl and burning her naked body with lit cigarettes, it would be hard not to believe Fantino's appraisal.

Hard, that is, until you look at the numbers.

Police reports show crime in fact has fallen in Canada's largest city for the past several years.

According to Toronto police, total criminal offenses by youth in Toronto fell to 7,837 in 1998 from 7,912 in 1997. Roughly half of those charges stemmed from assaults, including fights between youths, and theft of goods valued at under $3,500 (U.S.).

Police spokesman Sgt. Jim Muscat explained that Fantino's claims are based on the number of crimes committed by youth in the 1970s (when Toronto's population was around 2 million) compared to current numbers (and a population 50 percent higher).

Other observers go further, describing Fantino's assessment, and his conclusion that the best way to deal with crime is through tougher and longer sentences for anyone who breaks the law, as wrong-headed.

Fewer calls to schools

Tom Parish, a 33-year veteran of the Toronto police force, has a metal detector at his cottage. He won the device several years ago at a U.S. conference on school safety, and since then, it's "never been taken out of the package," he said.

Parish said he doesn't believe metal detectors, armed guards and high security measures are a useful way of ensuring school safety for the city's 300,000 students. Metal detectors require armed personnel to monitor them, and having armed security guards at school is not a good way to teach young people how to live in a free society, he said. His "non-violent" approach, however, has worked.

"Three years ago, I'd get calls four to five times a day" about school violence, he explained. "Now, it's probably once a week."

Throughout the city's 350 public schools, he continued, only five serious incidents involving violence or weapons were reported last year, a marked decline from previous years, when those problems were escalating.

"We've put a lot of effort into working with students, community groups, social agencies and the police" as part of a "holistic" approach, he added.

One of Parish's key innovations is empowerment -- reducing assaults by lessening the number of potential victims through education and intervention. He cites the example of battered women, noting that domestic assault numbers fell as women were educated to report assaults immediately, rather than tolerating them for years.

In student fights, retaliation is often more violent than the original clash. So if school officials, peer group mediators and social agencies intervene before the retaliation begins, bloodshed is limited, he went on.

"Education is the best way to deal with violence in schools and in society at large," he said. Despite this, Parish acknowledges that youth crime rises in the hours after school lets out. Crime that's pushed out of the schools sometimes just ends up on the streets or at shopping plazas, he lamented.

More crime reporting

Tony Doob, a professor of criminology at the University of Toronto, said "every indicator" shows crime in Toronto is declining, just as it is across Canada as a whole and in other parts of the world.

"There are two reasons for the perception that crime is rising. People talk as if it's getting worse, and we're hearing more about it in the news. Over the ages, people always talk about an idealized time in the past when crime was never a problem, so they assume it's getting worse now because it's being talked about in new ways," he said.

Police and politicians are partly responsible for this perception, he said, "because they talk as if crime is getting worse and we need to do something about it."

Murders in Toronto, which peaked at 86 homicides in 1991, have been on the decline every year since, dropping to just 48 last year. Of the victims, Doob said, about 20 percent are people randomly murdered by a stranger.

According to Statistics Canada, of Canada's 555 murder victims in 1998, 15 percent were killed by someone they didn't know, while 40 percent were slain by family members and 45 percent by acquaintances.

While Toronto is Canada's most populous city, with over 3 million residents, its homicide rate is lower than the national average, and lower than every other major Canadian city. But even those differences are relatively small, with studies showing crime in Canada is almost evenly spread between urban and rural areas.

If there's been any change in crime numbers, Doob said it can be traced to the decline in social services and a corresponding rise in the number of street people.

The "most cost-effective way to fight crime is through social services," he said. Cutting them is counter-productive to the fight against crime, he continued, and yet they are most often cut by politicians who take tough-on-crime stands.

High-profile murders

There's also another factor making crime seem more prevalent. "In Toronto, there have been a number of high-profile murders in the last few months," said University of Ottawa criminologist Julian Roberts. These include the killings of two taxi drivers, the Baranovski murder and the shotgun slaying of a patron at the Just Deserts restaurant during a robbery.

Though the Just Deserts murder occurred four years ago, the long-running, heavily reported trial only recently ended. The media focus on these crimes and trials "fuels the perception that crime is increasing," Roberts said.

This perception is similar to how air travel safety fears peak immediately after a plane crash, "even though we know air travel is very safe and crash figures are down," he added.

Canadians are not alone in their fears of rising crime, he went on. In Britain, people "also perceive crime is on the increase, even though it's been down for the last six years," he said.

While the fears feel real, he said, Canadian homicides are at their lowest level in 30 years, at 1.9 murders per 100,000 population. By comparison, he added, America's murder rate, while down, is still three times higher than Canada at 6.3 murders per 100,000 people, or just under 17,000 homicides in 1998.

The availability of firearms in the U.S. is one key reason for the different murder rates, he said. In Canada, about 25 percent of homicides are committed with a firearm, compared to about 65 percent of American murders.

A number of factors contribute to crime rates, Roberts continued, including community stability. Communities with a large number of transient residents -- those moving in for short-term economic reasons, for example -- tend to have higher crime rates.

This may be why, excepting certain hot spots, downtown Toronto has lower crime rates than the suburbs, which attract most newcomers, he explained. This trend, however, does not mean immigrants are more likely to commit crimes.

In fact, he said, crime rates among new immigrants are lower than for native-born Canadians.

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