Is Toronto a dangerous city? And is it getting worse? This week for Metrocide, Torontoist is examining a sea of homicide data and trying to come up with conclusions based not in fear or fantasy but fact.
Photo of Toronto from the CN Tower in 1981 by retroman from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.
Though it’s difficult to ethically explain away, homicides tend to affect people less the further away they happen, on both on a global scale and a local one. That’s why, perhaps, downtown homicides undoubtedly receive a disproportionate amount of attention: not only do a lot of people live downtown, a lot of people go downtown. The result of all that attention? The perception that, as one commenter put it yesterday, “Toronto suffers murders on Yonge St, in the club district, and on other downtown streets on a regular basis”—even though it measurably doesn’t.
Today, we’re examining homicides by narrowing our focus onto downtown and central Toronto, in an attempt to see if either of those areas are any more or less dangerous than the rest of the city. Tomorrow, we’ll go the other way, and compare Toronto to other cities to see where we stand.
Notes on Statistics
If you haven’t yet, be sure to read yesterday’s note on statistics, which explains the different geographic areas of Toronto that Toronto Police and Statistics Canada data represent. Today’s statistics are almost entirely drawn from Toronto Police data—only their data break down homicides into smaller fixed geographical boundaries than just “Toronto”—so heed the organization’s own warnings that “statistics…count all offences reported to the police….a single incident reported to police may generate more than one offence,” and that individual year-to-year statistics are less important than “the general trends and magnitude of change.”
Only the past ten years of data are publicly available on the Toronto Police website, so a larger picture is substantially harder to see than it was when we had twenty-six years of StatsCan data to work with yesterday. We’re also missing some data from 1998: the police’s annual statistical report for that year is, of yet, only available online as a PDF with a table of contents but no actual data. They haven’t gotten around to fixing it in time for us to publish Metrocide. (We did ask last week, but presumably the police have slightly more important things to do.) Please note that if there are no numbers charted for 1998, it is because those numbers are not known, not because they don’t exist. We’ll do what we can with the statistics we have.
The focus of today’s article is two areas we’re calling central and downtown Toronto. The Toronto Police define central Toronto as the area that extends from the Humber River in the west to Victoria Park Avenue in the east. From the Humber east to about Bayview Avenue, the area’s northernmost point is Lawrence Avenue; once Lawrence hits Bayview, the border of central Toronto winds down the Don River, until the Don River hits Eglinton Avenue East. (On the Toronto Police map, it’s the beige-coloured area). Those areas are served by nine police divisions: 11, 12, 13, 14, 51, 52, 53, 54, and 55.
Though what does or doesn’t count as downtown Toronto is open to interpretation, the geography of Toronto Police divisions all but force those boundaries to be those of 51 and 52 Division if we want to look at the relevant statistics. 51 Division covers the area from the lake north to Bloor Street East, and from Yonge Street east to the Don Valley Parkway, and 52 Division covers the area from the lake north to Bloor Street West, and from Spadina Avenue east to Yonge Street.
So, what do the statistics say?
The number of homicides that occur in central Toronto, at least over the past ten years, does seem to be slowly rising, though it is just as inconsistent on a year-to-year basis as Toronto’s overall number of homicides since 1981. Last year, for instance, there was one fewer homicide in central Toronto than there was in 2000, and one more than there was in 1997.
Overall, however, the percentage of Toronto homicides that take place in central Toronto seems to be declining, weighed against both Statistics Canada’s and the Toronto Police’s definitions of Toronto. The share of homicides that occur centrally is unpredictable and inconsistent, too: note the jump in 2006 before the fall in 2007.
The central homicide rate seems to hold steady with the city’s overall homicide rate as measured by Toronto Police, though it is not a perfect correlation: it seems to have originally been higher than the overall homicide rate, and to have recently dropped.
Also of note: both central Toronto’s homicide rate and Toronto’s homicide rate (as both measured by the Toronto Police) are higher than Metropolitan Toronto’s rate as measured by Statistics Canada, which demonstrates that, if they are considered together, Toronto’s satellite cities and towns not included in Toronto Police data (Mississauga, Oakville, Brampton, Newmarket, Caledon, Markham, and so on) have a lower homicide rate than Toronto proper does.
While the number of homicides in central Toronto seems to be increasing, there seems to be no pattern whatsoever to homicides in downtown Toronto (as we’ve defined it) over the past ten years—there have been as few as six homicides (in 2002) and as many as 17 (in 2000). In 2007, there were as many homicides downtown as there were in 1999, and less than there were in 1997, 2000, 2001, 2003, 2005, and 2006.
Since Yonge Street divides 51 and 52 Division, and since the two divisions are roughly the same size, it’s also worth noting that more homicides that occur downtown occur east of Yonge than west of it. That means that 52 Division (coloured in green above)—which includes the Entertainment District, the Financial District, as well as pretty much all of the city’s prime tourist attractions—has consistently fewer homicides than the significantly more residential area patrolled by 51 Division (coloured in blue).
The perception that homicides often occur downtown seems to be wrong, according to the data. On average over the nine years charted above, someone is killed in 52 Division every 107 days and in 51 Division every 47 days. So far this year, there has been one homicide in 51 Division, and have been none at all in 52 Division—both slightly less than there were by July 23 in 2006 and 2007.
Even though the number of downtown homicides is inconsistent, it seems that the percentage of homicides that occur in that area compared to the rest of the city (or to central Toronto) seems to be declining from a peak reached seven years ago. In other words: regardless of whether or not you think that downtown Toronto is deadly, it seems to be consistently getting less and less so compared to the rest of the city.
Unfortunately, it’s difficult to find a discernible homicide rate for downtown Toronto—the Toronto Police include a central population in their statistical reports each year (which can then be used to determine the homicide rate per 100,000 people), but they do not currently include year-to-year populations of individual divisions. Nonetheless, it seems reasonable to assume that the population in downtown Toronto has gone up over the past ten years, and will continue to do so into the future. Even if a rate were available, it may not be a good idea to treat it as gospel: all of the homicide rates we’ve included here are determined by the population (i.e. the people who live in a given area), and not the amount of people who spend a significant chunk of time working or hanging out there—which, for downtown Toronto, would almost certainly make the population significantly larger and the homicide rate significantly smaller.
All Toronto Police statistics from 2007 and earlier are from their year-end statistical reports. Year-to-date crime statistics for 2006, 2007, and 2008 are from the statistics area of their website.
Metropolitan Toronto homicides from 1981 to 2007 are from Statistics Canada. (Table 253-0004—Homicide survey, number and rates [per 100,000 population] of homicide victims, by census metropolitan area (CMA), annual, CANSIM [database].)