Toronto wrestles with how to stop gun violence after spate of shootings

As people look for ways to protect themselves, the debate over more police or more community programs gears up.
July 4, 2018, 9:14pm
Candles and a framed photograph of slain rapper Jahvante Smart are placed in the Metropolitan Church park during a vigil in Toronto on Monday, July 2, 2018. Christopher Katsarov/The Canadian Press

In the aftermath of a spate of shootings in Toronto, some people in the Regent Park community are on the hunt for their own guns to protect themselves.

It’s a quest that alarms activist and city council candidate Walied Khogali, who’s heard multiple stories of people calling others and asking where they can buy an affordable weapon because they’re afraid of becoming the random victim of someone with a gun.

“These are young people who are not in the game, people who are just worried about being targeted in the street and want something to protect themselves,” said Khogali, who is running for city council in the area that encompasses Regent Park and Cabbagetown. “They are on edge.”

But he says the way police and politicians have responded to the recent uptick in shootings, by promising “200 new officers with zero understanding of street culture or who don’t have relationships with the community,” isn’t helpful either.

As Toronto reels from one of the worst weekends of gun violence seen in recent years, a battle has ensued over how the city should address the problem, with politicians reassuring the public by promising to hire more police officers and community workers urging them to learn from past mistakes and take a different approach.

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This also comes as questions swirl around how policing will be impacted by newly sworn in Premier Doug Ford, one of whose first acts as premier has been to put a hold on the implementation of a police oversight bill, and who has made it clear that fighting gun violence in Toronto will be a priority for his government.

At least ten people were shot, two of them fatally, since Friday in Canada’s largest city. Of 208 shooting incidents on record so far this year — a 20-percent jump from this time last year — twenty-four people have died as a result of gun violence, compared to 24 shooting deaths in all of 2016 and 16 in 2017. The latest fatality occurred on Wednesday — one of the victims of a weekend shooting in Kensington Market succumbed to his injuries.

There’s “no easy answer” to reducing gun violence in Toronto, said Mayor John Tory, filling in as a radio show host on CFRB on Tuesday. He attributed the shootings to a “very complicated networks of gangs in the city.”

“Who were the people that pulled the trigger on Queen St.? Were they the boy scouts? Who goes by in a car and fires a gun out the window at people on the sidewalk?” asked Tory on CFRB.

In an interview with CP24, Chief of Police Mark Saunders said 90 percent of shootings in Toronto are gang-related.

Speaking with reporters on Tuesday, Tory echoed this statement, attributing the shootings to a “combination of a whole bunch of things involving guns, and drugs and gang activity of all kinds, turf wars and retaliation and just stuff we have to take off our streets.”

Pressed on how the city plans to address the problem, the mayor noted that Toronto police will be hiring 200 new police officers by the end of the year — a commitment the city had made previously. He’s also called on Crown attorneys to push back against the release of those who are armed when they’re arrested, while already out on bail on other weapons charges, and for Ottawa to quickly give Toronto its share of $328 million allocated to anti-gang funding.

Premier Ford, sworn in last week, promised in his platform to restore funding to anti-gun and anti-gang units in Ottawa and Toronto. While he’s suggested he’d support bringing back the notorious Toronto Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy (TAVIS) — known for its heavy handed tactics and high rates of carding — in the past, he’s since changed his tune, saying he doesn’t think the police should bring the program back. It’s unclear, however, what kind of police action the premier would support.

"This is unacceptable. We live in the greatest city in the world. This seems like this is happening every second day. There's a very small, small percentage of gang-bangers chasing each other around and innocent people are getting killed. It's not going to be tolerated under my watch in Ontario, I can tell you that," Ford said on Sunday.

"We'll hunt them down. We'll hold them accountable."

"We'll hunt them down. We'll hold them accountable."

So far, however, police have not said anything about the suspected motive for the deadliest and most brazen of recent incidents: a shooting in broad daylight in the city’s entertainment district that claimed the lives of two men well known in Toronto’s hip hop community. Up-and-coming 21-year-old rapper Smoke Dawg, whose real name was Jahvante Smart, and 28-year-old Koba Prime from the rap collective Prime, whose real name was Ernest “Kosi” Modekwe, were shot outside Cube nightclub, on a busy stretch of Queen Street full of people enjoying a Saturday evening. A woman who was shot is expected to recover. The following night, another four people were hit by gunshots late in the Kensington Market area.

Smart, who toured with Drake on his Boy Meets World tour in 2017, was a member of Halal Gang, a crew of four rappers from the Regent Park area. Various theories about his shooting death have been circulating online — some point out that days before his death, Smart had posted the video for Fountain Freestyle, scenes of which were shot in the Atkinson Housing Co-op. The co-op is homebase to Halal Gang rivals West Side Project Originals (P.O. Boys).

There was also tension online over how the media was responding to the story, with people criticizing journalists over their requests to friends and family of the victims for comment, and how hip hop was being associated with the incident.

Smart’s death has shaken the Regent Park community, as well as Toronto’s hip hop scene.

“Young people know him and a lot of families know him. It’s very heartbreaking and very sad for the community,” said Sureya Ibrahim, a Regent Park resident and the community relations specialist at the Centre for Community Learning and Development. “It’s been overwhelmed by violence.”

Khogali, who was at a vigil for Smart on Monday, was disappointed not to see Tory present. He also criticized the mayor for using words like “gangsters” and “thugs” in reference to the incidents, saying “there were some racial undertones that people took away from that. It didn’t improve things, and the fact that the leader of this city is not even showing up to the vigils of the victims of gun violence, I think that speaks volumes.”

The Regent Park community has already been on edge since police released a video in May of two separate incidents in which two suspects walked up to men in the community and fired guns at them. In the first incident, the gun didn’t discharge and the victim got away without realizing what had happened, but in the second incident, the victim was shot in the leg.

“There have been blatant acts of violence in the community against people who are not targeted, who are not involved in any way,” said Khogali. “Random encounters where they’ve been shot at or been threatened, and people want to feel safe, and rightly so.”

Ibrahim blasted politicians and police for their response, which she says doesn’t address the root causes of the violence — a lack of programming for marginalized youth and easy access to guns.

“We’ve all been teenagers in our lives… we have all those emotional roller coasters at a certain age and do weird stuff, but having access to guns is ridiculous,” she said.

Neil Price, a community researcher and the author of the 2014 Community Assessment of Police Practices report on carding, says the recent events are reminiscent of 2005’s notorious ‘summer of the gun,’ with talk of ramping up police resources.

“You’re left with the sense that this is cyclical, that we’re going to go through this every now and again.”

Given that Premier Ford has said he wants to beef up anti-gang units, Price stresses that it would be a mistake to replicate a program like TAVIS, which was established in a similar context.

“The whole premise of TAVIS was there’s a shooting, police come in visibly hard and heavy, make arrests, ask questions, extract the people who are doing the shooting, and — here’s the kicker — build community relationships that would then allow the police to gather further intelligence and somehow build cooperation from the very same community that they just raided.”

“There’s no way you can pilot in or parachute in officers into a community where there’s no previous relationship and then expect to build relationships."

“There’s no way you can pilot in or parachute in officers into a community where there’s no previous relationship and then expect to build relationships that are going to help you with policing or intelligence gathering,” he continued. “It made no sense.”

And while TAVIS is often credited with a drop in gun violence, Price notes that the public often forgets programs like Pathways to Education, which created diversions and pulled young people away from street life.

“That doesn’t get trumpeted,” said Price. “What does get trumpeted is this crude analysis about the visibility of police, the heavy handed tactics, and then the drop in shootings, and I fear we’re going back into that same logic today, even though that TAVIS did so much to ruin those relationships.”

Chief Saunders’ recent comments to media suggest that he would be opposed to the Toronto police going back to their old ways.

“You don’t want to overpolice because if you overpolice you wind up back in that same narrative."

“You don’t want to overpolice because if you overpolice you wind up back in that same narrative again which has brought us to where we are today,” he said during an appearance on CityNews.

Ibrahim, Price and Khogali all stressed the need to involve youth in discussions on how to address the violence, as well as more funding for youth training and mentorship programs.

“So many people like John Tory, who could not be any more removed from this kind of situation in terms of the lived experience… they get into rooms and they cook up approaches, and the most obvious mistake they make is they don’t do effective youth outreach,” said Price. “They do not bring youth who have the lived experience or perhaps are having to straddle this kind of life but who are trying to look for alternatives.”

Cover image: Christopher Katsarov/The Canadian Press