Sammy Yatim: Shoot first, ask questions later simply isn’t acceptable

As a crown prosecutor for most of ten years, I worked daily as a colleague with police officers — many of whom routinely put their lives on the line to protect the public. They are the most scrutinized people in our justice system.

It is also true that the widespread public impressions of what happened on a Toronto streetcar on a recent early Saturday morning could well be incomplete and inaccurate. As Constable James Forcillo’s lawyer, Peter Brauti says, his client is “devastated” by what happened and there should be no rush to judgement.

Sometimes people lose their lives because they want their actions to precipitate a shooting, in what has come to be termed “suicide by cop.” The phenomenon has been examined by criminologist Dr. Rick Parent in B.C. and is today unfortunately far more common in Canada than many realize. In effect, troubled persons seeking to commit suicide for various reasons commit acts which cause a police officer, who believes his own life is in danger, to shoot them.

What prompted Sammy Yatim to do what he did on TTC streetcar 4058 will likely never be known.

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Sahar Bahadi, mother of Sammy Yatim who was killed by Toronto Police in an altercation on a streetcar.Before the arrival of the police, his behavior appeared to threaten the safety of citizens. He had terrified passengers by walking slowly past them from the back of the streetcar to the front, a small knife in his outstretched right hand, his exposed genitals in his left. While advancing, he ordered everyone to remain on the streetcar. When some hurriedly exited, he revised his earlier command and told everyone to get off.

At the front of the bus, Sammy glanced at the driver but did not threaten him. Instead, he looked away and started screaming obscenities at the crowd outside the streetcar. The driver leapt out to safety shortly before the police arrived. Witnesses from the streetcar report hearing the police yell multiple times for Sammy to drop his knife. Within a very short time of the police arriving, Yatim was dead.

Passengers’ recollections of Sammy’s bizarre behaviour raise questions. Why didn’t he stab anyone when he had the opportunity? Why did he stay on the streetcar, and sit down, after all the passengers and the driver had fled? What was his mental state throughout the incident?

Some important facts do seem clear, quite a number from the cellphone video. Sammy, 18 years of age and wielding a knife with three-inch blade, was cornered inside an empty streetcar at least five metres away from constables Forcillo and two others. Fully 22 police officers were reasonably close by, a factor a court or police inquiry will also consider in deciding whether the use of lethal force was reasonable in the circumstances.

Forcillo fired three shots, which felled Yatim, and then another six, all within 12 seconds. In a bizarre turn, another policeman then fired Taser rounds even though Yatim was by then lying on the bus floor and probably already dead. The way the lethal force was deployed, including the number of shots fired, has resulted in many members of the public calling for Forcillo to be charged criminally. However, how and why he did what he did will be scrutinized more thoroughly than what critics can imagine, so rather than assume the worst, we should wait for the results of the investigations.

A use of force report by Calgary police inspector Chris Butler makes points applicable to the situation. First, police force can only be used when absolutely necessary, something that is certainly debatable in this deadly altercation. Misuse of lethal force negatively affects the all-important trust between the public and the police. Yatim might still be alive if the police had sought to de-escalate the situation by trying to engage him in a de-stressing conversation, even though he was mentally unstable at that point.

A passenger witness, who remembered Yatim as “a good kid,” recognized him when he had boarded the streetcar and noted soon after that “he was laughing, he was smiling, he seemed really OK” sitting at the back across the aisle from two giggling teenage girls. Then, she heard one of the girls scream and saw both of them run from their seats. The passenger witness panicked when she saw that Yatim had a “really crazy look in his eyes” as he then made his way toward the front.

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Yatim evidently came to Toronto with his sister from Syria to join his father, leaving his mother, a medical doctor, behind. Lately it appears she was staying with a relative in Montreal, planning to join the family, partly out of concern over her son’s difficult adjustment to his new homeland. Although Sammy was curious and had a zest for life, he had apparently encountered difficulty adjusting to life in Canada, including improving his English and overcoming the shock of life in a country so different from the one he had left. He had moved out of his father’s home a couple of weeks earlier amid what has been described as “trouble” and “disagreements.”

Quite understandably, many Canadians are concerned about the tragedy that occurred on that street car. A young man who had enjoyed basketball, been a scout at some point and attended church was gunned down. He had never before been in trouble with the police and had aspired to starting a health-care management program at George Brown College.

Could we provide more training for police to recognize and handle emotionally or mentally disturbed persons? Justice for all requires that there be maximum transparency first with the internal police investigations and then with the matter of whether or not criminal charges should be laid.

(Photos courtesy CBC and Reuters)

David Kilgour is co-chair of the Canadian Friends of a Democratic Iran and a director of the Washington-based Council for a Community of Democracies (CCD). He is a former MP for both the Conservative and Liberal Parties in the south-east region of Edmonton and has also served as the Secretary of State for Latin America and Africa, Secretary of State for Asia-Pacific and Deputy Speaker of the House.