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January 19, 2009

Toronto Police Services Board ordered to release crime data

Last summer, The Toronto Star’s investigative series on Crime and Punishment showed incarceration rates in east-end Toronto (between Riverdale and the Beach) comparable to that of some of the City’s Priority Neighbourhood Areas. It was just one of the startling findings, found through hard data analysis – the sort of data to which most researchers do not have access.

This week, pursuing an appeal to the Ontario Court of Appeal, reporter Jim Rankin and the Star‘s investigative team won another victory for researchers interested in looking at the interplay of crime data with other social variables.

Back in May 2003, using a Freedom of Information request, Rankin requested police records on arrests and occurrences, with identifying information removed, in order to do an analysis of the prevalence of racial profiling. When the Toronto Police Services Board refused, Rankin appealed to the Privacy Commissioner. The Police Board was ordered to comply with the request. Instead, they appealed and won at the next level. Last week, on appeal, Rankin (and the Ontario Information and Privacy Commissioner) won the case against the Toronto Police Services Board. The Police Board was ordered to comply and to reimburse court costs to Rankin.

The request for the police data was found to be reasonable and appropriate under the Freedom of Information Act,  in accordance with the principle of open government processes.  As underscored by the Supreme Court in a different case,  Dagg v. Canada (Minister of Finance), “Transparency and accountability are vital to the democratic process.”

The pursuit of this data is a bit of a Holy Grail. Researchers who work at a neighbourhood level look to crime data as an important part of the social profiles of neighbourhood, its residents, and the shape of any program interventions. Yet, for years, I have sat in meetings with other social researchers who described the runarounds and their failed efforts to access police crime data. It’s not that the data isn’t there. One Superintendent I met at a public meeting assured me he looked at that kind of data regularly. So how come the pursuit felt more like Monty Python’s Holy Grail?

The Toronto Star has been one of the first to be successful in the quest for this sort of data, initially tracking their own news reports and mapping Toronto homicides in Googlemaps. Perhaps provoked to it, the Police Services website soon began to publish similar data, with disclaimers.

Rankin and the Star‘s investigative team deserve much praise for their faithful quest of these hidden treasures.

November 24, 2008

"Broken Window theory" boosted in Science magazine findings

Disorder brings disorder, says the “Broken Windows” theory. Developed in the 1970’s by James Wilson and George Kelling, the theory maintains that once visible forms of social disorder have invaded a community, more disorder is sure to follow. And with more disorder, communities fall into disrepair, disinvesment, and decline.

An example of the theory, you may remember, is the anti-litter ad campaign the TTC ran a few years ago, urging people not to be the first to throw their trash on the ground as surely then “everyone” would follow. That campaign was premised on the idea of the “Broken Windows theory.” .

The theory had many weaknesses on broad social and political levels. Broken Windows doesn’t account for the larger social structures which create disorder, poverty and inequity. Nor does it account, as Sampson, Raudenbush & Earls do with their idea of collective efficacy, for the micro-level neighbourhood interactions which can mitigate against community disorder.

However, the Broken Windows theory gained political force because it offers a simplicity of solution. It also offers a cachet which appeals to middle-class electorate’s sensibilities. Promulgated by many big-city American mayors through the 1980s and 90s, Malcolm Gladwell re-popularized the theory in his book, The Tipping Point. It became a topic of debate between Gladwell and the authors of Freakonomics. See Gladwell’s blog for a sample.

So, into this environment, a recent study in Science shows that the theory does have some demonstrated effect. One of the best summaries of the article (pictures included) is posted as follows:

Not Exactly Rocket Science : The spread of disorder – can graffiti promote littering and theft?

Posted using ShareThis

It seems, after all, there is something to the old chestnut, “Monkey see, Monkey do, Monkey get in trouble, too.”

November 15, 2008

Roots of Violence report

Reports come and reports go. (Recently, some housing activists, bemoaning this truism, thought an effective protest might be to build a home out of all the housing reports which have been released on the topic.)

Into this environment, the long-awaited Roots of Violence report was released at Queen’s Park Friday (the last day of a week being a (non-)noteworthy day itself in the news cycle). And, this new report cited the decades-long list of reports which have covered the topics of youth violence, racism and poverty. The Literature Review for the report is 570 pages alone. A separate volume of commissioned research papers is almost as long, and an additional volume on “community perspectives” was included in the release.

One goes into these things, hoping again this isn’t the perennial re-arranging of the deckchairs on the Titanic. What we are looking for are lifeboats.

The Roots of Violence report sets out thirty recommendations, three for “priority implementation.”

The first, to provide universal mental health for youth, costed at $200 million. The report authors write that they believe this cost estimate is “manageable” within the current government’s term of office.

Second, the report recommends some anti-racism initiatives – calling for the establishment of a Cabinet Committee and Premier’s Advisory Committee on Social Inclusion and Anti-Racism; the training of front-line police officers; and teacher and school principals to “better reflect the neighbourhoods they serve”. (Nothing new here, and no specifics to get us there.)

The third priority recommendation is a call for “steps [emphasis added] towards community hubs….Another winter and spring should not go by in the most disadvantaged neighbourhoods with there being no safe place for youth to gather and play.” No costing is attached to the recommendation, so it’s also not likely to get far.

In their comments at the press conference, the authors largely focused the psychological and social effects of the criminalization of youth. McMurtry expounded how, with his fifty years in the justice system, both he and Police Chief Bill Blair knew that jailing kids was “a simplistic solution.” True enough, but aside from offering there are no “quick solutions,” little to move the agenda forward.

The report does suggest two other interesting bits:

  • A Youth Policy framework, a re-work of a low-key report released earlier this year at United Way Toronto. Another call to break down silos and improve service coordination. Perhaps it will work this time.
  • The development of an Index of Relative Deprivation to help target interventions at the neighbourhood level (Census Dissemination Area). Using census data, the Index gives an early hint at what the province might use in its soon to be announced Poverty Reduction Strategy.

Still, considering the vagueness of the report’s recommendations, I’m keeping my life jacket on. The ship is still sinking.

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