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How Toronto police are tackling the alarming rise in hate crimes

Antisemitic and Islamophobic incidents are on the rise across Toronto since war broke out in Gaza, fraying nerves in both communities and straining the resources of the police officers who investigate them. The National got special access to the city's Hate Crimes Unit, following officers as they work to keep up with the city's rising tide of intolerance.

Reports are up 64% since war broke out between Israel and Hamas

How police are tackling the alarming rise in hate crimes

23 hours ago

Duration 15:44

As reports of hate-motivated crimes skyrocket, CBC’s Ioanna Roumeliotis explores how the divisiveness of the Israel-Hamas war is playing out on the streets of Toronto and gets exclusive access to the police hate crimes unit to find out how it’s responding.

The text from a Toronto police spokesperson came at 8:30 on a Friday morning. A synagogue in the city's north end had been vandalized overnight. Our crew could meet detectives from the force's Hate Crimes Unit on site.

We arrived at the Kehillat Shaarei Torah synagogue to find congregant Norman Mosselson quietly sweeping up broken glass. When we asked him how he felt, his voice broke and he stifled a sob.

"Well, shock. Total shock… This is my home," he said. This was the second time the synagogue had been attacked in a month.

A few minutes later, detectives Kiran Bisla and Pat Alberga from the Hate Crimes Unit arrived and noted the several broken windows. The glass on one of the synagogue's doors was also completely shattered.

Bisla says determining if an incident can be called a hate crime comes down to two critical pieces of evidence: crime and motive.

"This is mischief, it's vandalism to a synagogue," she said. "So it is a criminal offence. Whether the incident is motivated by hate or prejudice, that is part of our investigation."

Toronto police say reports of hate incidents have risen 64 per cent since war broke out between Israel and Hamas and that they have since laid more than 240 hate-related charges.

Since Oct. 7, the Hate Crimes Unit has expanded from a team of six to 32 and has responded to more than a thousand such reports, up from 225 in the previous year.

Police say more than half of the hate crimes reported this year have targeted Jewish people. Followed by, in order, incidents against the 2SLGBTQ+, Black and Muslim communities.

Attacks on both synagogues and mosques have shaken the Muslim and Jewish communities.

Bisla spent several minutes talking to visibly upset congregants at the synagogue. These investigations stand out, she says, because of the pain they cause.

WATCH | Hate crimes on the rise:

Synagogue vandalized again

23 hours ago

Duration 1:04

Toronto’s Hate Crime Unit has responded to over a thousand hate-related reports since the beginning of the Israel-Hamas war. The Kehillat Shaarei Torah synagogue in Toronto was vandalized twice in four weeks.

"It's terrible and it's clear to see what the impact is, not only on the synagogue but the community as well," she said.

While police did their work, Rabbi Joe Kanofsky walked carefully over the shattered glass and surveyed the damage solemnly. Facing this for a second time, Kanofsky says he dreads what can happen next.

WATCH | Chilling memories:

Unease in the mosque

23 hours ago

Duration 0:50

Assistant iman Shaffni Nalir of the Toronto Islamic Center says he is always weary of who is entering the mosque after an incident there last November.

"It'll be somebody else's windows," he said. "And it'll be someone accosted on the street. And each level of that ratchets up."

Most incidents involve offensive graffiti, assaults, threats but there have also been shots fired at a Jewish school and a fire set at a Jewish-owned business. Two hate-related arrests have also been made in connection to protests.

The heightened tensions have led to police setting up a command centre – a large vehicle staffed with officers — in a predominantly Jewish neighbourhood and regular police check-ins with local synagogues.

On the day of the synagogue attack, Insp. Jack Gurr dropped in to offer his support.

WATCH | What will happen next?:

Worries of escalation

22 hours ago

Duration 0:27

Rabbi Joe Kanofsy of the Kehillat Shaarei Torah worries hate-related incidents will escalate if proper attention is not paid.

Gurr runs Project Resolute, an effort to increase police visibility in targeted communities, which was set up shortly after Oct. 7 to help them feel safer.

He says while most reported hate incidents involve antisemitism, the statistics don't tell the whole story.

The police chief has expressed concern that Islamaphobic incidents are being significantly under-reported and Gurr says this could be because members of that community don't trust police to react when calls are made.

"These are some of the barriers that we are really trying to break down," Gurr said.

There is no predominant Palestinian neighbourhood in Toronto and that's why, Gurr says, a police command post also makes the rounds at various mosques around the city, especially during Friday prayers when larger crowds tend to gather.

Last November, a man kicked in the door of the Toronto Islamic Center, threw a rock at worshippers and swung a bike chain at them. Police say the same man allegedly attacked a cab driver after asking him if he was Muslim and and a woman in a hijab in the days before.

Assistant imam Shaffni Nalir was there that morning. He recalls a chilling feeling as the suspect spat and glared at him.

"It's hard to understand why someone hates you when you don't even know where it's coming from," he said.

Still, Nalir says there was some hesitation to involve police because of what he calls a "guest mentality" among many in his community.

It "has to do with not being a nuisance," Nalir said. "It's as if we have to wait for someone to actually be harmed in order for us to call when other communities aren't thinking like that, you know?"

Nalir says community officers have been more present since the attack and were even granted certificates of appreciation during a recent community event.

But Nalir hasn't let his guard slip. As we spoke, his gaze kept drifting toward the door.

"It's almost become second nature," he said. "I read the faces that come in," adding that he has trouble leading a service or taking part in one.

"In other mosques I can pray peacefully," he said, because he doesn't have the same sense of responsibility. A security guard now regularly stands outside during Friday prayers.

All this fear and anxiety has led to heightened security training at Jewish and Muslim centers.

"There is a very solemn mood about our team right now," said Younus Iman, part of the Salam Project, a team that offers security training at mosques and other community groups. He says demand has doubled since Oct. 7.

"We feel like we kind of have to focus on the mission and not think too much about the other stuff," he said. "This is a horrible situation."

Kanosky says his synagogue's security committee has also been discussing heightened measures and training.

Kanofsky says the plan is to keep some of the shards and use them to make a mezuzah — a doorpost that serves as a constant reminder of faith.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ioanna Roumeliotis

Senior Reporter

Ioanna Roumeliotis is an award-winning senior reporter with CBC News, The National. She is based in Toronto and covers a wide range of topics for news and current affairs, with a focus on the people behind the issues. Send ideas to Ioanna.Roumeliotis@cbc.ca

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    Credit belongs to : www.cbc.ca

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