Is there any justice for Sammy Yatim?
Regardless of anyone’s feelings about the Sammy Yatim trial, Monday’s two-toned verdict is one that will be discussed for years. The infamous shooting incident on a 505 streetcar where the switchblade-wielding Yatim, 18, was shot a total of nine times by Toronto Police Constable James Forcillo brought tensions between the police and marginalized people in Toronto to a forefront. The shooting occurred in a year where racial tensions were boiling in the United States following the complete acquittal of George Zimmerman in the death of Trayvon Martin, which was followed by a myriad of coverage of similar incidents.
While Canadians have been exposed to multiple cases, acquittals, and subsequent protests south of the border, they are often less aware of similar incidents occurring in their own major cities. Yatim is certainly not alone, as Toronto is no stranger to police shootings, which are lopsidedly committed against visible minorities and the mentally ill.
Take Michael Eligon, 29, who was shot in February 2012 by Toronto police in East York while wearing a hospital gown and clutching a pair of scissors. Despite video evidence showing Eligon surrounded by at least half a dozen trained police officers on a residential street, he was still shot and killed on the spot. Eligon’s death became part of a 2014 inquest which included two other mentally ill individuals shot by police, and resulted in the incidents being declared “homicides.” The most pressing conclusions were that “officers should take into account whether a person is in crisis and not just his/her behaviour when encountering a person with a weapon.” Additionally, the inquest advised looking into the use of tasers on mentally ill patients and the continued use of de-escalation techniques so long as there is no direct threat to the officers.
Unfortunately, it is evident that those recommendations have not been taken to heart by the police. Last July saw the death of Andrew Loku, 45, a father of five with a past history of mental illness who came to Canada to escape civil war in South Sudan. Wielding a hammer, Loku was reportedly shot within 10 to 25 seconds after police arrived in the hallway of his apartment.
The case against Constable James Forcillo revolved around similar outrage—that police were handling non-lethal situations with excessive, lethal force. Does a man with a switchblade seriously constitute enough of a threat to be shot nine times? Forcillo’s lawyers argued that according to the training given to him by the Toronto Police Service, it most certainly did.
The Crown attempted to convict Forcillo on shooting Yatim three times (second-degree murder) and for subsequently shooting six more times after he was down (attempted murder). The jury acquitted Forcillo for his initial shooting of Yatim, but did not buy the self-defense argument for the second charge.
The result is a hollow, but nevertheless historic, conviction. Forcillo, 32, is the first officer to ever be convicted of a murder charge while wearing the uniform since the Special Investigations Unit was established in 1990. According to the Toronto Star, out of over 3,400 cases the SIU has investigated involving crimes committed by police officers, only about 100 have led to actual criminal charges, and less than a quarter of those result in convictions.
By trying Forcillo on two separate charges, our justice system showed some much-needed flexibility, separating Forcillo’s behaviour in the context of his police training from his subsequent actions once Yatim was no longer seen as a threat. While the constable can cower behind the defense that police training justifies shooting a mentally disturbed teen, Forcillo couldn’t escape the moral implications of firing those other six bullets.
Any murder-related conviction should be taken as a positive step in how Toronto deals with excessive force used by its police officers. It is certainly not justice, but the Sammy Yatim verdict is a wake-up call to law enforcement that will not fall on deaf ears.