In February 1997, Edmond Yu, a paranoid schizophrenic who had stopped taking his medication, allegedly assaulted a woman before boarding a bus in Toronto. When the police arrived, Yu, sensing that he was in danger, pulled out a hammer. One of the officers responded by firing six shots at Yu — three of which hit their target, ending Yu’s life. No charges were laid against the officer who shot Yu.
In July 2013, Sammy Yatim was shot and killed by police when he taunted them with a knife from his position near the front steps of a Toronto streetcar. This time the incident was captured on video and the officer who shot Yatim was charged with second-degree murder.
How has the emergence of easy-to-produce video become a “game changer’ in incidents documenting interactions between members of the public and the police?
SETTING THE STAGE
Note to Teachers
The classroom must promote a safe place for students to discuss sensitive issues such as violence and death. Prepare students for the topics that will be discussed. Allow for individual reflective time in addition to small group activities where students can safely process their thoughts and emotions.
he entire episode was captured by multiple witnesses, each filming what was going on with their smartphones. And it really didn’t matter which video you watched: it looked like the Toronto police had the situation under control. A young man brandishing a knife stood on a streetcar taunting several police officers by the vehicle’s front door. The passengers and the driver had already fled to safety and the area was teeming with Toronto’s finest. Most of the officers seemed content to wait it out, speaking into their radios, scanning the scene on the streetcar as well as the surrounding area. Suddenly shots rang out — first a cluster of three, then another six. Less than a minute later, an officer used a Taser on the man despite that fact that eight of the nine bullets hit their target. Not surprisingly, the victim, 18-year-old Sammy Yatim, was pronounced dead shortly after arriving at a local hospital.
The story that the smartphone cameras didn’t capture happened moments earlier. Witnesses onboard the streetcar reported that an agitated, knife wielding Sammy Yatim shouted threats at passengers while exposing himself. By all accounts the scene was terrifying and, while Yatim ranted irrationally, the passengers fled from the streetcar. That’s when Yatim sat down and waited for the police.
Then the stand off began and the smartphones started capturing the scene. Yatim taunted two officers who had their guns drawn by the front door. The officers repeatedly shouted, “Drop the knife!” Eventually one of the officers warned Yatim to not take another step toward him. When Yatim moved, the officer opened fire on the young man — the first three shots brought Yatim down; five seconds later the next six shots were fired at the man as he lay on the streetcar floor. Thirty seconds after that another officer used a Taser on Yatim.
Not surprisingly the smartphone videos made their way onto YouTube and went viral. The public reaction echoed a common refrain: why had police killed Sammy Yatim? Certainly the situation was volatile, even dangerous, but it didn’t seem to warrant lethal force. With over 20 officers on the scene surrounding one man holding a three-inch blade on an empty streetcar, it seemed hard to understand why nine shots and a Taser needed to be used to subdue the suspect.
A few days after the shooting, hundreds of people — including Yatim’s family and friends — staged a protest in downtown Toronto. The protest itself was an appeal for justice. A young man was dead and someone needed to take responsibility for the killing.
The officer who fired the shots was eventually identified as Constable James Forcillo. Shortly after the incident, Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair told reporters that Forcillo had been suspended with pay while Ontario’s Special Investigations Unit (SIU) conducted an investigation. Then the chief got the ball rolling on his own internal investigation into the shooting and vowed to cooperate fully with the SIU. Even Ontario Ombudsman André Marin vowed to investigate the incident.
With so much public pressure and investigative attention placed on the killing of Sammy Yatim, it was no surprise when the SIU charged Constable Forcillo for his leading role in the shooting. What did come as a surprise was the fact that the SIU charged him with second-degree murder. If convicted, Forcillo would face a life sentence (25 years) for killing Sammy Yatim. No doubt the case against the officer will rest largely on the smartphone videos that captured the final moments of Yatim’s life.
1. Why did it appear that the police had everything under control the night that Sammy Yatim was killed?
2. What did Sammy Yatim do to draw the attention of the police that night?
3. What scene did smartphone cameras capture shortly after police arrived?
4. What role did public pressure play in the laying of charges against Constable Forcillo? Do you think the SIU would have laid these charges even if there wasn’t a public outcry?
5. A charge of second-degree murder suggests that Constable Forcillo deliberately killed Sammy Yatim. Since police are mandated by society to use lethal force when necessary, why might it be very difficult for the Crown to convict Forcillo of second-degree murder?
VIDEO REVIEW Pre-viewing
The police are charged with the responsibility of protecting and serving the public. In some circumstances, police encounter situations that pose a direct danger to themselves and the public. In such cases they are permitted to use force — even lethal force — to bring a dangerous situations under control.
Work with a partner to answer the following question:
Under what circumstances should the police be allowed to use their gun to subdue a suspect?
1. What happened to 18-year-old Sammy Yatim one July evening in Toronto?
2. Why does former Toronto police officer Ross McLean think that Yatim didn’t need to die?
3. Why was the public outraged by the killing?
4. Why was it important for Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair to assure people that the shooting would be thoroughly investigated?
5. Describe the range of emotions evident at Sammy Yatim’s funeral.
6. What message did Sammy Yatim’s sister Sarah deliver at the rally two weeks after her brother’s death?
7. a) What eventually happened to the officer who shot Yatim?
b) How did the family react to this development?
8. a) Why do many wonder if Constable Forcillo will ever be convicted for shooting Yatim?
b) Why are convictions of police officers a rare occurrence?
1. What do you think? Did police need to use lethal force when they encountered Sammy Yatim? Please explain your answer.
2. According to some reports, Yatim was warned not to take any further steps toward the officers at the front of the streetcar. When he failed to comply, Constable Forcillo opened fire. Does this change your perspective at all?
3. Prior to shooting Sammy Yatim, Constable Forcillo called for a supervisor to use a Taser to subdue the young man. Supervisors are the only Toronto police officers authorized to use the device. He said the situation “could be contained” with the stun gun. (National Post, August 23, 2013) By the time the supervisor arrived, Yatim was lying on his back near the front of the streetcar after being struck by eight of nine bullets fired by Forcillo. Nonetheless, a Taser was used about 30 seconds after the shooting despite the fact that Yatim was flat on his back after being shot.
a) Does the fact that Constable Forcillo called for a Taser-equipped supervisor make his actions any more understandable?
b) The supervisor who used the Taser has never been identified or charged with an offence. Do you think the public has the right to know the identity of the supervisor? Do you think they should be charged in relation to the killing of Sammy Yatim?
HOW TO HANDLE A CRISIS
Find the video of the Sammy Yatim shooting on YouTube. Watch the video two times — first with the volume down and next with the volume up. Answer the following questions after each viewing:
Did the situation seem to warrant lethal force?
At what point did the Toronto Police officers seem to think they were in danger?
Did your answers change after you viewed the video with the volume up? How much more vivid is the video with sound as opposed to the video without sound?
In February 2008, News in Review focused on the death of Robert Dziekanski in a story called Cracking Down on Tasers. Dziekanski had flown to Vancouver from Poland to see his mother. Not knowing a word of English, a confused Dziekanski wandered the Vancouver airport’s Customs area for 10 hours, becoming more and more agitated with each passing hour. No one spoke to the man until it was too late. Eventually the RCMP was called in when Dziekanski started forming a barricade with nearby furniture. When the RCMP arrived they made the decision to use a Taser to subdue the distraught man. The problem: Dziekanski was Tasered five times in a matter of minutes. While the tactical strategy worked, the combinations of Dziekanski’s troubled mental state and five rounds of 50 000-volt charges delivered by the Tasers left the Polish man dead. The entire incident was captured on video by a traveler who pulled out his camera and started filming the scene just prior to the arrival of the RCMP.
The video of the death of Dziekanski is brutal to watch. For the viewer, it seems odd that four RCMP officers couldn’t detain the man without resorting to the Taser as their primary takedown tool. However, police officers that view the video tell a different story. They say that Dziekanski showed all the signs of a state of mind called “excited delirium” — an agitated mental condition that sees a person so immersed in their distress that they have lost control of their ability to reign themselves in. Excited delirium is a very controversial term associated predominantly with the deaths of individuals involved in violent police arrests. The Dziekanski video definitely shows this distress but it doesn’t provide a sense of what the police saw or felt when they were standing just a few feet from the man. Thus, the two sides of the story square off against each other: the public perception that too much force was used in the incident and the law enforcement perspective that the situation was much more dangerous than the video demonstrated.
Use of force
In 2000, the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police put together a policy document called the National Use of Force Framework. The framework describes the varying degrees of response that police may use in a given situation. Here’s a brief description of the framework:
Assess, plan, act – Once an officer arrives on the scene, they are constantly assessing the situation, planning their next move and choosing a course of action until the matter is resolved.
Communication – An officer should be in constant communication with the person involved in the situation to which they are called. They need to be attentive to both verbal and non-verbal cues given by the individual they come in contact with.
Determine the state of mind of the person – As part of their constant assessment of a situation, an officer needs to determine whether the person they come in contact with is cooperative or dangerous. Even if a person is cooperative, officers are trained to be prepared in case that cooperation suddenly evaporates. If a person is uncooperative, various tactical considerations come into play.
Tactical considerations – These may include hard or soft physical techniques (arm locks, handcuffing, kicking, punching), intermediate weapons (such as a baton, pepper spray, or Taser), or lethal force (a gun). When the decision is made to use lethal force, the police are trained to aim for the “centre of mass” — the area between the pelvis and the shoulders — because this is the region of the body that provides the easiest target to hit. The problem: a person’s centre of mass is where most of their vital organs are located and the likelihood of a fatal gun shot wound rises exponentially if the officer elects to shoot.
Note: The language above uses the singular (person/individual). Often situations would need to be described using the plural (persons/individuals).
The case of Sammy Yatim When the police dispatcher reported that a man brandishing a knife had taken over a streetcar in downtown Toronto, over 20 officers made their way to the scene. By the time most of them arrived, the streetcar was empty and only the man with the knife — later identified as Sammy Yatim — was onboard. While Yatim taunted police from his perch near the front door of the streetcar, three officers pulled out their guns — two by the front door and one by the rear. No doubt adrenalin was surging through the veins of the officers and Yatim. Constable James Forcillo called for a supervisor to deploy a Taser on the suspect (since the supervisor was the only one equipped with and allowed to use a Taser). However, something must have happened to dramatically alter the situation because shots rang out and Yatim dropped to the floor at the front of the streetcar. Apparently Yatim had stepped toward Forcillo after being ordered to stay back. The first three shots knocked Yatim down. A few seconds later, six shots were discharged while he was lying on the floor of the streetcar. About 30 seconds after the shooting, Yatim was Tasered by an unidentified officer (presumably the supervisor).
Police are trained to be extremely cautious with knife-wielding suspects. According to some sources, police are taught to maintain a six to nine-metre distance from someone with a knife because an attacker can cover that much ground in a matter of seconds. Perhaps this training idea kicked in when Yatim appeared to move toward Constable Forcillo, compelling the officer to pull the trigger on his police service revolver.
According to the Crisis Prevention Institute (CPI), the key tactic to de-escalate a volatile situation is communication. This is also a key component of the National Use of Force Framework. When CPI provides de-escalation training, they tell trainees that the five communication keys are:
Giving the person your undivided attention.
Focusing on the person's feelings, not just the facts.
Allowing for silence.
Restating what the person has said to clarify messages and demonstrate empathy.
(Source: “Communication is the Key to Crisis De-Escalation” by Jerilyn Dufresne, www.crisisprevention.com)
Review the video involving the Taser death of Robert Dziekanski and the shooting death of Sammy Yatim. Review multiple videos if necessary.
What evidence do you see of the police using de-escalation techniques in their encounter with the two men? How might they have used some of these techniques to bring the situation under control? Overall, what might the officers have done differently to bring both situations to a peaceful resolution?
Convicting a cop
When the CBC interviewed security expert and ex-Toronto police officer Ross McLean about the killing of Sammy Yatim by Constable James Forcillo, he said, “This officer’s going to have to explain why he used the level of force he did.” He went on to say, “He [Yatim] was fairly contained. He was in the streetcar. He [Forcillo] could have let that guy sit there all night.” (cbc.ca, July 29, 2013)
Of course, instead of waiting it out, Constable Forcillo opened fire. Despite what appears to be a preponderance of evidence, many wonder if Forcillo will be convicted of a crime in the shooting death of Yatim. Odds are, in Forcillo’s defence, his lawyer will draw on police training and the duty of the police to protect themselves and the public from violent offenders. As evidence of justified shooting, they will also point to Forcillo’s belief that Yatim posed an immediate threat to his personal safety and the safety of other officers.
What do you think? If Forcillo is acquitted of the second-degree murder of Sammy Yatim, does this constitute special treatment for police officers? Do police receive more leeway from the justice system? Are they entitled to more leeway?
Three weeks after Constable James Forcillo shot and killed Sammy Yatim, Ontario’s Special Investigations Unit (SIU) director Ian Scott said that he felt there were “reasonable ground” to believe the officer had committed a criminal offence at the time of the shooting. Not many expected the criminal offence to be murder in the second-degree. Scott has now left the case in the hands of the Crown attorney who has to prove that Forcillo deliberately killed Yatim.
Many legal experts claim that this will be no easy task. Since the SIU was founded in 1990, only three of 21 officers charged in cases involving the death of civilians have resulted in a conviction. No officer has ever been found guilty of murder.
However the Forcillo case seems to be unique in a number of ways. First, the video evidence is compelling. While a jury may have been convinced that Forcillo was acting in self-defence after the initial burst of three shots, fewer will believe that Yatim still posed a threat after the officer fired another six shots while the young man was lying on the ground. Second, Forcillo was the only officer to fire a shot. The other officer by front door of the streetcar restrained himself and the officer watching the back door did not open fire. With Forcillo as the lone gunman, the Crown may be able to argue that the officer acted recklessly and, while not planning to kill Yatim, deliberately fired enough bullets to end the man’s life. Finally, National Post columnist Matt Gurney claims that the police have not rallied behind Forcillo in the way they have with other officers accused of wrongdoing in the past. Generally, when an officer is in trouble, other officers throw their support behind their colleague even if they appear to be guilty. In the case of the shooting of Yatim, many have provided the media with “off the record” comments challenging Forcillo’s decision to shoot. This constitutes a serious break with past police practice when officer’s found themselves in trouble. (National Post, August 20, 2013)
If Forcillo is found guilty of second-degree murder he will face a life sentence of 25 years. A conviction would also mark a legal precedent for future charges relating to violent altercations between the pubic and the police. This is why many legal experts are calling the proceeding against Constable Forcillo a potential landmark case.
1. Why do you think it was a surprise to many people that Constable Forcillo was charged with second-degree murder?
2. Why do many legal experts think that a second-degree murder conviction is unlikely?
3. What arguments might be used by the Crown in the case against Forcillo?
4. Why is this a potential landmark case?
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