Saturday, August 30, 2014

A night with a Toronto's TAVIS rapid response team

TORONTO - On the surface, it’s just another quiet night in a relatively safe summer that is quickly winding down.

But TAVIS — Toronto Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy — rapid response teams seek out the ever-present trouble that lurks beneath the surface, so for these Toronto officers there’s rarely a dull moment.

And these days they face the added challenge of dealing with angry bystanders — unfortunate fallout from the recent police shooting in Ferguson, Mo., as well as last summer’s Sammy Yatim killing and lingering animosity from the G20 in 2010 — which is apparent during a ride-along last week.

“We are the pointy end of the stick,” Toronto Police Sgt. Mark Hayward explains as we hit the street Friday night.

His 16-member team is one of four TAVIS RRTs that take turns patrolling the city, bouncing around from division to division, pro-actively hunting bad guys.

And once their cars are spotted in a neighbourhood, the smart criminals tend to lay low.

“It all about high visibility,” Hayward says as we cruise around Rexdale, scoping out known trouble spots.

Rival gangs in government housing projects such as Jamestown and Mount Olive have been feuding recently and his team aims to keep the bangers’ guns at bay.

The evening starts out slow enough with a seemingly routine vehicle stop on Islington Ave., just north of Albion Rd.

Officers search the Chrysler 300 and find two baggies, which they suspect had contained marijuana, and one of the three occupants has a wad of cash.

They also discover a baseball bat tucked in the backseat. The three men are handcuffed briefly while cops investigate.

The driver admits to officers he keeps the bat close by for “protection” because “it’s a rough neighbourhood.”

Turns out he was stabbed in the face six weeks earlier.

While the team is suspicious, they let the men go without weapons dangerous charges and without the bat.

The officers then seize an opportunity for a positive encounter with the public when they spot six-year-old Jayce Kelly and his twin sister, Kara, out for a stroll with their grandmother.

They allow the youngsters to peak inside their cruiser and share a laugh before hitting the road again.

As we head into the Jane-Finch area, Hayward chuckles at the mention of how quiet it’s been this summer.

“It’s no summer of the gun, but I wouldn’t say it’s been quiet,” Hayward says, explaining much of the violence his team sees doesn’t make headlines.

There have been no shootings like the one at the Eaton Centre in June 2012, which saw two gang bangers killed and five innocent bystanders wounded, or the one on Danzig St. a few weeks later that left two dead and 23 injured.

“But we did have that double shooting outside of the C Lounge just a few days ago,” Hayward pointed out, referring to the incident Tuesday in the Entertainment District.

A 25-year-old man survived despite being shot five times. But Jelena Loncar, 31, was hit by a single stray bullet and died.

“She was an innocent young woman minding her own business and she got killed,” Hayward said.

We chat further about the lack of heat waves this summer and how that may have minimized the gunplay.

“When it’s hot, people are out and tempers tend to flare,” Hayward says. “So the weather has definitely been our ally.”

The tension rises just before midnight when two officers who had been watching suspected drug dealing in Yorkwoods Plaza suddenly become engaged in a foot pursuit.

A young man approaches their unmarked vehicle, looks inside and shouts “police” to alert others in the area. The youth takes off and the chase is on.

The call comes over the radio letting the team know the teen has run across the street into Turf Grassway — a housing complex they were warned about in their briefing earlier as a potential danger zone for cops.

Hayward and the other team members race to back up their fellow officers.

Suddenly we’re travelling up Jane St. at 120 km/h, emergency lights flashing. Hayward brakes hard to make a sharp turn, then heads around to the back of the complex hoping to cut off the fleeing teen.

The smell of burning rubber and brake pads fills the cruiser.

The team tracks the suspect down almost immediately. But he turns out to be “a decoy.”

When we pull into Yorkwoods Plaza afterward, Hayward learns the suspected drug dealers took off while his team was chasing the teen. The youth is arrested for obstruction.

One of the suspected dealers return to the plaza soon after and officers talk to him, careful not to rile the crowd gathered out front of a nearby restaurant.

The man is on probation for trafficking and he’s carrying “a blunt.” But it’s such a small amount of drugs that officers cut him loose.

Then, as the team gets set to do a walk-through at Turf Grassway, they suddenly become involved in another foot pursuit.

Officers spot a group of four teens, one of whom appears to be clutching his waistband as though he might have a gun. They approach the boys to talk and they take off.

Still catching their breath from the earlier incident, the team springs into action again.

Hayward spins his tires and turns into a townhouse complex. This time his cut-off move works.

Two of the teens are caught like deer in his headlights.

The suspects quickly glance around to see officers moving in from every direction, guns drawn, ordering them to “get down on the ground.”

The teens put their hands up and drop to the ground. The officers quickly move in and slap handcuffs on their wrists.

The situation goes from bad to worse though as several angry women, who witnessed the gunpoint takedown, begin screaming at the officers.

“Leave them alone, they’re just kids,” one women shouted. “You tackled them for no reason.”

Still unsure if one of the teens is armed with a gun, Hayward and his partner, Sgt. Peter Karagan, are now forced to take time out to calm the women down.

But their yelling draws residents of a nearby highrise out onto their balconies. Then suddenly “smash,” a glass bottle crashes to the ground nearby.

It’s a potentially volatile situation, but the TAVIS team takes it all in stride — just another day on the job.

The canine unit is called in to search the area in case one of the teens tossed a gun, but no firearm is found.

Hayward said one of the suspects, 17, later told officers “he ran because he was afraid.”

The teen’s concerned mom, who had just come home from working a midnight shift, showed up at the scene to find her son in the back of a police car.

“He’s a good boy,” the woman said, as Hayward filled her on what happened.

“If he and his friends had just stopped when the officers approached, we would have talked to them briefly and sent them on their way,” he explained. “Instead, we’ve now wasted an-hour-and-a-half dealing with this.”

Meanwhile, other TAVIS officers had a good talk with the teens, “dusted them off” and sent them on their way.

“That’s sometimes just as important as the take down,” Hayward said. “When we’re dealing with kids who are polite and respectful, as these guys were, we want to try to make sure they leave on a positive note so that hopefully the next time they don’t run from us.”

He said police have had a tough time with some citizens lately, especially since the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson — an incident that has nothing to do with Toronto officers.

“Unfortunately there are some people who have an opinion of us and there’s nothing we can do to change their minds,” Hayward said. “But we do what we can.”
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