Toronto homicide squad being revamped under new leader after tough year

Toronto’s homicide squad has had a difficult year — the team has had to investigate a record-breaking number of killings in Canada’s most populous city, grapple with a rise in deadly gang violence, address criticism about a perceived lack of action in some cases and deal with several high-profile slayings that have strained resources.

Heading into 2019, however, the team’s new leader is revamping the unit by bringing in more members and launching a video analysis unit in an effort to solve more cases faster — changes that are needed if the city’s homicide figures stay around their current levels.

“I think 2019 will be a real decision-making year,” Insp. Hank Idsinga says in an interview at police headquarters. ”If we’re going to keep a pace of 90-100 murders a year, we have to re-think how we’re staffing investigations.”

Toronto recorded 96 homicides in 2018, a figure that broke the record of 89 homicides in 1991.

About 70 per cent of those cases have been solved, Idsinga says, although that success is also an indicator of more work ahead for his team.

“That means about 70 cases will go before the courts, and that takes up a lot of manpower and time,” he says.

The force’s statistics indicate 51 of the year’s homicides were by shooting, 20 by stabbing, 10 were part of an April van attack and 15 were by “other means.”

The city’s police chief has attributed the overall rise in homicides to an increase in gang violence.

But the force has also noted that the city’s homicide figures have remained relatively stable in the years since 1991 even as the city’s population has grown considerably. Toronto boasted 2.3 million residents in 1991, compared to a population of 2.7 million as of the 2016 census.

For Idsinga, who was told in early December that he was formally being made head of the homicide squad, the year has been marked by several high-profile cases and new developments within the team.

The 51-year-old spent the first six months of 2018 as the lead detective on the investigation into alleged serial killer Bruce McArthur, who faces eight counts of first-degree murder for the deaths of men with ties to the city’s gay village.

In July, Idsinga became the acting head of the homicide squad and began planning his transformation of the team.

“We will have a lot of new faces and a lot of movement within the squad,” he says, noting six detectives have already been brought to help alleviate the workload of the unit’s 48 detectives.

A new missing persons unit has also begun operating under his watch with four detectives — a team formed in response to complaints from the community about how the force dealt with missing people. Members of the LGBTQ community in particular had long said there was a serial killer preying on men in the gay village, raising their concerns before McArthur’s arrest.

Idsinga is also starting a video analysis unit to help ease the squad’s workload.

“The nature of homicide work in 2018 involves an awful lot of video surveillance,” he says. ”To properly extract that video surveillance, to properly analyze that surveillance, to make it presentable for court, it’s a lot of work and is labour intensive.”

He points to the van attack in April that killed 10 and injured 16 in the city’s north end as an “extreme example” of video collection and analysis. Detectives are still working on video collected from dozens of businesses and scores more from cellphones to build the case. The trial for the alleged attacker, Alek Minassian, is set for early 2020.

That incident along with a shooting rampage in Toronto’s Greektown in July that left two dead — and 13 others injured — was a “game changer” for the city, according to Police Chief Mark Saunders.

“It’s one thing when you’re dealing with gunplay,” Saunders said last week. “It’s another thing when you’re walking down the street and looking over your shoulder.”

Other brazen gun-related incidents in the city this year included the daylight killing of rising rapper Smoke Dawg and brand manager Ernest Modekwe in June, several drive-by shootings and a shooting at a playground that wounded two young girls earlier this year.

Idsinga said he hopes to be able to provide closure in one prominent case early in the new year, with plans to have a report on the Greektown shooting presented at a public police board meeting. Shooter Faisal Hussain killed a 10-year-old girl and an 18-year-old woman before killing himself. Because Hussain died by suicide, there is no formal avenue for police to present their case, as prosecutors would do in court.

“We’ll never be able to answer everybody’s questions, but we’ll say here’s what we know and you can draw your own conclusions,” Idsinga says.

The homicide squad is also wrapping its investigation into McArthur, confident that there are no other alleged victims, Idsinga says. Officers and cadaver dogs searched 100 properties linked to McArthur and found nothing, he says, calling it the biggest forensic investigation in the force’s history.

The force’s cold case squad also continues to look into cases dating back to the 1970s, but so far they haven’t linked any of those deaths to McArthur, Idsinga says.

Another big case that has dogged the squad is the unsolved late 2017 murders of billionaire couple Barry and Honey Sherman.

The family has blasted the force for numerous alleged errors and lapses, and hired its own team of former homicide detectives, Ontario’s former chief pathologist and forensic experts to perform a separate private probe. The family recently announced a $10-million reward for information that would solve the case and proposed a “public-private partnership” with police where the shadow team would work alongside the force.

Idsinga called the proposal “interesting” but said it would involve onerous restrictions. He welcomed any tips and information but wouldn’t go for a situation where police would have to share information with the family’s team.

Looking ahead, Idsinga hopes 2019 will bring fewer homicides.

“We’re very tired,” he says, rubbing his temples. “The pace really picked up in the summer of 2017 and it was just constant for a year.”

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