Families of police-shooting victims call for action in wake of Sammy Yatim’s death

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew
Families of police-shooting victims call for action in wake of Sammy Yatim’s death

The anger ignited by the police shooting of teenager Sammy Yatim on an empty Toronto streetcar almost three weeks ago shows little sign of dying down.

The families of other people killed by police weighed in Tuesday, demanding a say in Ontario Ombudsman Andre Marin's investigation into police use-of-force policies and training, CTV News reports.

The families have allied with the Ontario Federation of Labour and the Urban Alliance on Race Relations to keep the pressure on for change. The federation also wants the Ontario government to mandate uniform approaches to dealing with mentally disturbed people.

The groups held a news conference ahead of a noon-hour rally where demonstrators demanded police forces finally head longstanding calls to train officers in better techniques to de-escalate confrontational situations without using deadly force.

[ Related: What comes next in Sammy Yatim shooting investigation? ]

Mothers whose sons died in police-involved shootings brushed off Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair's announced review by a retired judge aimed at recommending best practices when it comes to the use of force, CTV News said. Previous shootings have sparked inquests and reviews that have recommended change.

“All the recommendations that need to be put in place to safeguard the life of a Canadian citizen are sitting in print for anybody who’s interested to implement those things," said Ruth Schaeffer, whose son Levi died in a police shooting in 2009.

“There’s lots of recommendations, but the police services get to decide which ones are implemented."

Schaeffer said she's still reeling from her son's death four years ago, CBC News reported.

Jackie Christopher, whose son O'Brien Christopher-Reid was shot dead by police in 2004, said she couldn't watch news reports about Yatim's death "because it was so close to home," according to CBC News.

“Another mother had lost a child because the police and the justice system had failed us again. I hope this is the last death this way.”

Urban Alliance president Gary Pieters told the news conference his group is calling for better training, oversight and monitoring of training programs. Officers should be better trained to deal with mentally disturbed individuals.

"Today a family is without their son," he said, according to speaking notes posted on the group's web site.

"The tragedy is that this could have been avoided. The fatal shooting of Sammy Yatim and the immediate public outcry brought back painful memories of the numerous victims of police violence in Toronto. We also see similar patterns of lethal use of force in other large cities across Ontario and Canada."

Sammy Yatim, who immigrated to Canada from Syria with his family five years ago, was killed in the early hours of July 27. Yatim was riding a street car when he reportedly became agitated and pulled out a small knife. The passengers and driver were able to flee.

Video from cellphone and security cameras show police outside the streetcar shouting at Yatim to drop the knife. An officer fired a total of nine shots, three that caused Yatim to drop, followed by six more. Another officer then fired his Taser stun gun.

[ Related: Sammy Yatim shooting: 6 things police are taught about using force ]

The officer who fired the fatal shots has been suspended while the independent Special Investigations Unit (SIU) reviews the fatal shooting.

But the labour federation's Joel Duff told Yahoo! Canada News that while the SIU probe and reviews by the Ombudsman and former judge Dennis O'Connor are welcome, the Ontario government needs to take direct action.

The province has 52 separate police forces, each with it's own policies and protocols on dealing with agitated, potentially aggressive people, he said. Whether someone ends up in a mental health unit or a body bag depends on which force they encounter, said Duff, the federation's communications director.

The federation is calling on Attorney General John Gerretsen to implement a use-of-force policy and training regimen that covers police province-wide, he said.

[ Related: Toronto Chief Bill Blair asks retired judge to review police service after Sammy Yatim shooting ]

The labour group, which numbers more than one million members belonging to 1,500 union locals, helped organize Tuesday's events because it has a history of involvement in social-justice issues, said Duff.

"This is what our members expect us to do," he told Yahoo! Canada.