In the winter of 2023 commuters in Toronto have grown increasingly worried about being physically assaulted on TTC subway trains and buses, and we have some reason for concern. Several residents have been attacked and hurt by mentally ill people lashing out at anyone in their surroundings. In January, a woman was stabbed on a streetcar and two uniformed TTC workers were assaulted on their way to work. A bus driver was shot in the face with a BB gun and a person wearing religious head gear was allegedly beaten in a hate-motivated assault. Already in February, two TTC workers have reported being chased about by a man with a syringe primed with an unknown substance. Twenty-two incidents have occurred thus far, with more going unreported.
Is the Solution to Hire More Police Officers?
The rise in violence has led to more police officers being assigned to guard the transit system. Toronto police Chief Myron Demkiw announced on Thursday Feb 02nd that a minimum of eight uniformed police officers will watch the system commuting to and from various points at peak times throughout the day. Toronto Mayor John Tory has been pushing for an increase of nearly $50 million to the police’s budget, bringing the total to $1.16 billion, if approved. There’s talk of hiring of an additional two hundred police officers and ninety special constables. The TTC’s proposed budget also includes hiring more security with twenty-five new special constable positions being created and an additional twenty-five vacant positions are to be filled as soon as possible.
Critics of the funding choice argue the money could be better spent on underfunded community services.
Gloria Segovia, founder and psychotherapist at AERCs Toronto believes the current situation was entirely foreseeable. “Unmanaged anger and frustration amidst deteriorating socioeconomic conditions is a recipe for unprovoked violence.” Gloria says, and notes the increase in violent crime in Toronto is a reverse of the decline enjoyed last decade.
Crime rates vary over time. We’d like to believe they always trend downwards, but that notion isn’t supported by the data. Crime rates are tied to many different factors including the economy, unemployment, racial demographics and the efforts of law enforcement. Assigning mental health counselors to work in the transit system and making space for individual counselling and specifically addiction counselling could be a new factor in the equation. While it’s unlikely to solve the problem entirely, it might help reduce suffering and provide a path to rehabilitation for those most negatively affected. It would reach these vulnerable people on the transit system, before its too late.
“During the pandemic and post-pandemic, there are a lot more under-housed in the (transit) system, using it to get out, using it as a shelter in a sense,” said Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) CEO Rick Leary said while speaking with Greg Brady on AM640 in Toronto. “That’s why we’re working with Streets to Homes and others and being at the table with the mayor and the city and the police and our union partners to talk about what we can do to help under-housed as well as those with mental health issues,” Leary said. AERCs would suggest the TTC hire more social workers, psychologists, and psychotherapists and make them available in economically challenged neighbourhood train stations for free.
TTC spokesman Stuart Green is quoted saying, “…people with mental health and addiction issues who are not getting supports they need elsewhere are seeking shelter on the transit systems.” He directly links the lack of social service and the tough economy and defines the problem. “We’re hearing public transit has become a venue for what we would typically classify as antisocial behavior,” Green told The Canadian Press, and he went on to say it’s an issue the transit agency cannot deal with alone. “We want everybody at the table because we are not equipped as a transit agency to deal with broader mental health, societal issues,” he said. “Our core business is getting buses, streetcars, and subways out on time. It’s not delivering social services.” But until the TTC and the City of Toronto have the funding and the mandate to make change, the violence could continue.
What are some ways to prevent being attacked on a subway?
- Be aware of your surroundings and stay alert.
- Trust your instincts and avoid any situations that make you feel uncomfortable.
- Avoid wearing expensive jewelry and don’t carry large amounts of cash.
- Keep your valuables in a secure location, such as a locked bag or pocket.
- Try to commute during well-lit, busy times and stick to brightly lit areas
- Avoid isolated areas of the subway station and or empty trains.
- Keep your phone charged and easily accessible in case of emergency.
- Scream! Be prepared to defend yourself. Carry an audio alarm or pepper spray.
- Try to travel in groups or with a companion.
- Report any suspicious behavior you observe to the authorities.
Toronto Transit System moves hundreds of millions of riders every year and most trips are entirely problem-free. Many police-involved incidents are minor happenstances that go unreported in the press. Are we making a mountain out of a molehill? Some people contend there has always been violence in train stations and in our modern age there has simply been an increase in reporting with cell phone video. Is that true? Can we confirm that the violence is the worst it has ever been? No, we can’t affirm or deny that contention because we don’t know the actual numbers. In November 2022, the most recent period reflected in TTC’s data, there were 135 incidents where the police were called to a transit station or vehicle. Of those recorded events, 113 were assaults, 14 were robberies, and 5 were sexual violations. There is currently no publicly available data past November 2022. When the next tranche of data becomes available, we’ll look at the winter of 2023 and expect to see the increase in violence we’ve observed in news reports. Here at AERCs, we believe the best approach to help everyone involved is to fund more mental health counselors like those we make available to the public everyday.