A photo from last week's Sammy Yatim protest. By Michael Toledano for VICE
Nearly a month ago, a Toronto Police officer named James Forcillo shot 18-year-old Sammy Yatim nine times (six bullets were fired when Sammy was already down on the ground). Today, news broke that Forcillo will face second-degree murder charges. This comes as a welcome development to many people—including the Yatim family, who sent Sammy to Canada from his native, violence-ridden Syria five years ago to live a better, safer life.
Then there are the hundreds of people who protested for justice on two separate occasions—yelling out the names of other (often mentally ill) victims of police gunfire, holding placards with enraged slogans calling for police disarmament, and rallying together to focus the city’s anger and sadness towards something more constructive and positive.
I’m personally surprised that Forcillo is facing such a serious charge—he could face ten to 25 years of jail time if convicted. Yesterday, I expressed my skepticism to a couple of friends that Toronto Police's watchdog Special Investigations Unit would arrive at a just outcome. I know I wasn’t alone in thinking that, and it’s not hard to understand why. From 2008 to 2013, the SIU has looked into the deaths of 44 people who were killed by the Toronto Police—15 of them by gunfire. Out of those 44 deaths, only one cop was ever charged, and none were convicted. Beyond that five-year period, every incident of a police officer being charged with manslaughter or murder has ended in acquittal.
So what makes this incident so different? Obviously it has a lot to do with the cell phone footage of the incident—shot by two different witnesses—that invigorated the city and the media’s criticism and disgust at the level of force used against the teenager. Without clear visual evidence circulating around social media within hours of Sammy’s death, there would have been more opportunity to discount eyewitness reports and perhaps absolve James Forcillo of culpability. It’s unlikely that a man who shot a teenager nine times would be easily stripped of all liability—even without video evidence—but it certainly helped to have crisp footage of the disturbingly violent incident to push this investigation along.
This should also come as a relief to anyone who is a relative, friend, co-worker, classmate, or acquaintance of any Torontonian with mental illness. While Sammy Yatim was never diagnosed with any sort of mental disorder, his behavior on the night of his death, which led the police to be called in the first place, certainly indicates that something had gone wrong for him personally. As former police officer Ross McLean pointed out to Global News, there was no attempt to de-escalate the situation once those 23 police officers arrived on scene to detain Sammy Yatim.
Ross posits that the cop could have tried to neutralize the situation by simply asking: “What’s wrong?” Instead of, “take one step forward, and you’re done,” which is what James Forcillo appears to be saying to Sammy Yatim in the video footage.
While we will need to wait and see how James Forcillo’s trial goes, it’s a positive sign to see the Toronto Police responding appropriately to the apparent wrongdoing of one of their officers. The skepticism that many have felt towards the city’s protectors should be partially alleviated now, and hopefully there will be stronger training put in place to hopefully prevent something like this from happening again.
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For more on Sammy Yatim, check out Patrick's earlier article: