It can hardly be said that tact and self-awareness has ever been a strong suit for the Toronto Police Service. But the force’s latest PR strategy—press-ganging a private citizen into helping them with their investigation—has bordered on the bizarre. On Monday, a story ran in the Toronto Star reporting that senior members of the Toronto Police were disappointed with a lack of support and cooperation from rap superstar Drake.
If this story sounds familiar, it should. This isn’t the first time Toronto Police and local news media have pleaded with Drake to do something—anything—to help solve crimes. Two years ago, after a fatal shooting at Muzik nightclub where the afterparty for Drake’s signature OVO Fest was being hosted, the rapper came under intense public pressure to release a statement asking witnesses to come forward. Ten days later, he did so. Yet, after police interviewed hundreds of witnesses, the culprits in the shooting, which left two dead and three injured, haven’t yet been found.
The names and circumstances of the recent incident have changed dramatically, but the tactics of Toronto’s police service and its news media have not. This time around, they’ve turned a private citizen’s grief into a tool for public conscription. By any other professional standard, this crosses a line into exploitation.
A couple of weeks ago in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough, local rapper Anthony Soares, known by his stage name as Fif, was gunned down in the lobby of an apartment building after being dropped off by a friend. As he waited to be buzzed into the building, two men rushed to the vestibule and fired several times through the glass door. Soares was rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery, but he succumbed to his wounds. He was buried last Saturday, and one of his pallbearers was international celebrity Aubrey Graham, whom the rest of us know as Drake.
Soares, a father and entertainer, has had a lengthy friendship and business relationship with Drake, and that must have made his death difficult enough. Yet, before the wreath laid on Soares’s grave had begun to wilt, the Toronto Star printed a lengthy story calling up everyone from police detectives, social media commenters, and even Mayor John Tory to shake their heads solemnly at Drake’s perceived inaction. The article went on to question Drake’s judgment in signing and touring with local rappers, the “heavy-handed tactics” of his security team, and even the responsibility Drake holds as ambassador to the Toronto Raptors and holder of the Key to the City of Toronto.
Some context is in order here. The Toronto Police, which has long had an antagonistic relationship with the city’s Black community, is hardly in a position to demand any help from anyone. This is the same police force that has fought tooth and nail to resist the most basic of reforms to end racialized profiling and incarceration. It required marches in the streets and several fiery public debates to end the practice of carding, which still persists to this day in various forms of stop-and-question that continuously target people of colour neither having committed nor even suspected in any kind of crime.
This is the same police force whose sloppiness in protecting witnesses has led to retributive killings. It took the high-profile 2009 murder of Kenneth Mark, an anti-gang activist and local role model, for the Toronto Police to bother putting together a witness protection policy—one that was drafted by Deputy Chief Peter Sloly — who worked to reform the Police Service’s image, and repair its relationship with Toronto’s communities of colour, but was ultimately passed over for the role of police chief. Sloly later left the force after making withering criticisms.
This is also the same police force that failed to report to the SIU when Michael Theriault, one of its own officers, allegedly chased down and brutally beat a young Black man named Dafonte Miller with a metal pipe in the nearby city of Whitby. Miller was grievously wounded, rendered blind in one eye, for having committed no greater crime than being outdoors after dark. Not only did Toronto Police fail to report the incident, Miller’s lawyer alleges the father of the accused—Detective John Theriault, who works within the Police Service’s Professional Standards Unit—improperly contacted Durham Police to obtain information about the investigation, as well as to provide false information about injuries to his son.
Beyond the diminished moral standing of Toronto Police to use media pressure in conscripting the aid of private citizens, there’s also the narrative of the story itself—that Drake’s celebrity status in Toronto requires a sort of saintliness from him that is rarely expected of others. Doug Ford, a former Toronto city councillor who’s just declared himself as a mayoral candidate for the second time, has gotten by mostly unscathed by his own alleged shady associations. Yet the criminal record of the rappers signed to Drake’s music label are held up for public scrutiny—rappers who, mind you, have come up from some of Toronto’s most marginalized neighbourhoods, and by dint of racial and geographic profiling, are five or more times as likely as the average Torontonian to be caught in the criminal justice dragnet. The current mayor’s words denying the existence of white privilege are hardly worth mentioning, yet Drake’s lyrics, and those of his labelmates, are added to the Black pathology evidence manual. Toronto Police did not implore former mayor Rob Ford to come forward and assist with the investigation of gang murders to which he could reasonably be connected, yet a hit piece chastising Drake and reminding him of his public responsibility ran in a major newspaper less than 48 hours after he laid his friend to rest.
Over the last few days, there has been a conversation in North America about the duty of Black athletes and celebrities to perform gratitude for their riches. In the United States, that conversation has mostly pertained to the appropriateness of kneeling for the national anthem, in protest against police violence and systemic inequality. But the overarching theme in the conversation is what rich Black people owe for the privilege of being allowed to benefit from their labour.
What we’re seeing in the treatment of Drake, by Toronto’s media and its police service, is that he owes a kind of fealty that’s never been asked of nor expected from another Torontonian that’s risen to his level of success. And Drake being enlisted into this service by institutions that have systemically excluded and marginalized people who look like himself. Whether he decides to make a statement or not, by this point, hardly matters. What does matter is that our institutions, police and media both, seem to have learned nothing over the last five years.
If there’s anything I can humbly offer to Toronto Police, as well as their allies in news media who believe they’re entitled to the labour of a private citizen, it would be a saying well known within my community: sweep your own veranda before you set foot on our porch.
Andray Domise ran against Rob Ford in Toronto’s Ward 2 city-council race in 2014.