Crime in Toronto has been relatively low in comparison to other major cities. A 2015 ranking of 50 cities by The Economist ranked Toronto as the eighth safest major city in the world, and the safest major city in North America.
For comparisons to various cities in North America, in 2012 for example, the homicide rate for the city of Toronto was 2.0 per 100,000 people, yet for Atlanta (19.0), Chicago (18.5), Boston (9.0), San Francisco (8.6), New York City (5.1), and San Jose (4.6) it was higher, while it was significantly lower in Vancouver (1.2). In 2007, Toronto's robbery rate also ranked low, with 207.1 robberies per 100,000 people, compared to Detroit (675.1), Chicago (588.6), Los Angeles (348.5), Vancouver (266.2), New York City (265.9), Montreal (235.3), San Diego (158.8), and Portland (150.5).
Large criminal organizations have been operating in the Toronto region since at least the mid-19th century, beginning with the homegrown, yet short-lived Markham Gang. Since that time, large-scale organized crime in Toronto has mostly been the domain of international or foreign-based crime syndicates.
By the early 1900s, the infamous Black Hand had followed Italian immigrants to Toronto as it had in most major North American cities of the time. Italian organized crime remains prevalent to this day, with the Sicilian Mafia, Campanian Camorra, and Calabrian 'Ndrangheta all active at various times and to various degrees within the city. During prohibition, Toronto became a major centre for bootlegging operations into the United States, which also saw an increased presence of Italian-American organized crime — specifically the Buffalo crime family.
Today, the multicultural face of Toronto is well reflected in the city's underworld, which includes everything from Jamaican posses to Eastern European bratvas to American biker gangs and the infamous Punjabi Mafia. The genesis of many foreign criminal organizations in Toronto has often been linked to the drug trade, as with the large influx of heroin and various Asian triads during the 1970s, or cocaine and South American cartels in the 1980s. These criminal groups, however, occasionally have a political bent as well, as with the Tamil organized crime groups and gangs such as the VVT and rival AK Kannan gangs, which warred with each other in the city's streets during the 1990s and early 2000s over the brown heroin trade. In recent decades Toronto has also seen an infiltration of major American street gangs such as the Bloods, Crips, and Mara Salvatrucha.
Critics have argued that organized crime has been allowed to flourish in Canadian cities such as Toronto due to the difficulty and cost of prosecuting organized crime cases compared with individual cases, and the flexible minimum sentencing and the double time served stipulations that the judicial system utilizes to unburden the penal system. Today, Toronto has become a centre for a wide array of organized and transnational criminal activities, including the counterfeiting of currency, bank cards, and digital entertainment products, together with telemarketing fraud and the production of marijuana and synthetic drugs. Toronto also has a comparable rate of car theft to various U.S. cities, although this is lower than in some other Canadian cities. Much of this has been attributed to organized crime, with stolen vehicles ending up being shipped overseas for sale.
In his 1945 book Street Gangs in Toronto: A Study of the Forgotten Boy, Kenneth H. Rogers identified the following gangs active at that time in the following areas of the city:Moss Park - Riverdale: Brown Gang, Grey Gang, Porter Gang
Withrow Park: Beavers, Britch Gang, Graphic Gang (Rogers refers to at least 4 other unnamed gangs in this area)
North Toronto: Evans Gang, King Gang, Wunkies
Rosedale: Arnot Gang, Basket Gang, Black Gang, Green Gang, Grey Gang (Rogers refers to 2 other unnamed gangs in this area)
Bathurst & Queen: Aces Gang, Aggies, Bridge Gang, Cardinal Group, George Gang, Harris Gang, Mix Gang, Park Gang, Rustler Gang, Trapper Gang
Most of these gangs were simply loose-knit groups of juvenile delinquents involved mainly in low-level, petty crimes such as gambling, shop-lifting, and pick-pocketing (Rogers was actually robbed by members of the King Gang while attempting to interview them). The composition of the gangs were mainly poor Caucasian youth of British descent, although some were more ethnically diverse such as the George Gang (Jewish), the Mix Gang (Black), and the Aggies (Polish & Ukrainian).
Rates of youth gang activity in Toronto can be challenging to measure due to conflicting definitions of gangs, the smaller size of youth gangs, and their looser organization. Some research found 11% of Toronto high school students and 27% of Toronto homeless youth identified as being gang members at some point in their lives. Other research found under 6% of high school students and 16% of street youth identify as current gang members — but that only 4% of students and 15% of street youth were involved in gangs of a criminal (rather than social) nature.
One study has reported that approximately 2,400 high school students in Toronto claim to have carried a gun at least once between 2004 and 2005. Research has found that most youth gang-related crime consists of property offences, drugs sales, drug use, and physical conflicts with other gangs. Social activities are more widely reported amongst self-identified youth gang members than criminal activities. Murder and other more grievous types of crime are uncommon.
Although most youth gang members are male, mixed-gender and female youth gangs also exist. Youth from lower-income families are more likely to self-identify as gang members, but membership cuts across lower, middle and upper income categories. One study found that although Black, South Asian and Hispanic youth in Toronto are more likely to report gang activity than youth of other ethnicities, 27% of criminal youth gang members self-identify as white (followed by 23% Black, 3% Aboriginal, 18% South Asian, 17% Asian, 5% Middle Eastern and 7% Hispanic). A correlation has not been found between youth gang membership and immigration status. Gang-involved youth commonly report a history of abuse and/or neglect, poverty, dysfunctional families, isolation, school failure, and other psychosocial issues.
Efforts to reduce youth gang crime have included police raids, government & social programs, and camera surveillance of public housing projects.
In the late 1980s, gangs in Toronto were becoming increasingly violent. This coincided with the arrival of crack cocaine in the city, which caused more gun violence to occur in low-income neighbourhoods. In 1988, Toronto Police were under scrutiny for a series of shootings of unarmed Black men, dating back to the late 1970s. In 1991, Toronto experienced its most violent year with 89 murders, 16 of which were linked to drug wars involving rival gangs.
On May 4, 1992, there were riots on Yonge Street, which followed peaceful protesting of a fatal shooting of an unarmed Black man by Toronto police (the eighth such shooting in the last four years, and fourth fatal one). Later that year, local activist Dudley Laws claimed that police bias against Blacks was worse in Toronto than in Los Angeles.
In 2005, Toronto media coined the term "Year of the Gun" because the number of gun-related homicides reached a record 52 out of 80 murders in total; almost double the 27 gun deaths recorded the previous year. On December 26, 2005, 15-year-old Jane Creba was shot and killed in the Boxing Day shooting while shopping on Yonge Street in downtown Toronto. After this incident, many people called for the federal government to ban handguns in Canada; this also became an issue in the 2006 federal election, but the number of homicides dropped to 70 in 2006. However, 2007 saw another, smaller wave of gun violence starting in May with the shooting death of 15-year-old Jordan Manners at his school, C. W. Jefferys Collegiate Institute. A couple months later, on July 22, 2007, 11-year-old Ephraim Brown was killed after being shot in the neck by a stray bullet, during a gang shooting in the city's north end at Jane Street and Sheppard Avenue. These events raised calls for a ban on handguns once again. Of the 84 murders in 2007, roughly half were via firearm, thus, Toronto had a murder rate of about 3.3 per 100,000 – slightly less than the peak rate of 3.9 in 1991. There was a drop in murders again in 2008 with 70 (a total of 105 murders in the Greater Toronto Area – including a record high 27 occurring in neighbouring Peel Region, but statistically this was an anomalous year there). The falling murder totals have continued, in 2009 with 65, followed by 63 in 2010, then the lowest total in recent times with only 51 (75 total in the GTA) in 2011, the lowest homicide total since 1986 and even a lower rate of 2.0 per 100,000, close to the national average, representing a further dramatic decline in the city's murder rate for the fourth consecutive year. Overall shooting incidents have also declined from 335 occurrences in 2010 to 255 reported in 2013 and reaching a decade low 196 for 2014. This figure of total shootings jumped significantly again in 2015, with year-to-date figures by late November returning to the range seen at the peaks five to ten years earlier. Toronto Police statistics show a 90% increase in people wounded by gunfire and a 48% increase in shootings (135 in 2015 compared to 91 in 2014). Meanwhile, there were 114 reported incidents of shootings without injuries as of July 15, compared to just 14 in 2014. However, despite this significant increase in the number of shooting incidents and victims, the almost eleven month total of shooting related deaths at that point matched the previous decade low of 22 gun deaths for 2013 and the total number of homicides had potential to be the lowest number since TPS began publicly releasing the figures in 2005. 2016 saw an increase in homicides, to an eight-year high of 65 reported by December 14, 2016.