Why Did the Toronto Police Kill Sammy Yatim?
Martin Baron's footage of the Toronto Police shooting Sammy Yatim dead.
Early on Saturday morning, 18-year-old Sammy Yatim pulled a knife out on a crowded streetcar that was traveling west on Dundas St. W, right by Trinity Bellwoods park. Luckily, the streetcar was stopped before anyone was hurt, the passengers were fully evacuated, and the police were quick to arrive. What followed, however, has been the source of confusion and outrage in the Trinity Bellwoods community and Toronto at large, as a police officer shot the 18-year-old nine times. Then for whatever reason, police electrified his body with a taser.
This killing was all caught on video by a couple of passer-bys. One of which was Martin Baron, a resident of the neighborhood who has lived in the area for 12 years. Just before the police arrived on the scene Saturday morning, Martin was walking south from College St. towards Dundas, and noticed the streetcar was stopped with its lights on and its doors open. It was empty, save for Sammy Yatim, who was still on board. Martin says he saw the police rush the streetcar, guns out, yelling “drop the knife, drop the knife,” which you can hear in his footage. It appears that Sammy took about half-a-step forward, which was apparently reason enough for a police officer to unload nine bullets at him. It’s still unknown how many of those shots hit Sammy, but he was confirmed dead at St. Michael’s Hospital.
When I spoke with Martin on the phone, he asked a couple of questions that have been floating around in my head since I heard about Sammy’s death: “Why was there no attempt at de-escalation? Why was it instantly deadly force?” For many people, this demonstration of ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ style policing is an unwelcome showing of law enforcement strength.
The Trinity Bellwoods neighborhood is usually teeming with people, and from the looks of Martin’s footage, Saturday morning was no different. While a police officer was unloading his gun into Sammy Yatim, Dundas St. was full of people from the emptied streetcar, others who were heading to and from the busy Dundas and Ossington nightlife strip, and those who were sitting in the nearby restaurant and bars. Then there are all of the houses in the area and the cars stalled around the scene of the crime. It seems like there were all sorts of opportunities where stray bullets could have burst through the streetcar’s windows and hurt an innocent person. Surely there was a better way to handle Sammy that morning.
For one, why couldn’t the police have closed the streetcar doors on Sammy and wait for a negotiator to arrive? At the very least, it would buy them time to discuss how they were going to approach the situation. How about the fact these cops had a taser on them? Why wasn’t that option to subdue Sammy Yatim tried out, before the 18-year-old was killed? I’ve heard the argument that a taser needs to be reloaded—so if they missed, the cops could have found themselves in a harrowing situation—but Sammy has been described as around 110 pounds. Surely if the taser failed, the cops would have still been able to disarm him if the 18-year-old decided to do something violent in retaliation.
An "enhanced" camera angle of the shooting.
Unfortunately, for many people, this incident is forcing the city to recall the widespread police brutality that surrounded the G20 conference in 2010. Martin remembered his experience during that weekend, “I witnessed the G20 kettling at Queen and Spadina from my office window (working on the weekend for a deadline). I saw the police act as aggressors and escalate hostilities when their role should have been to de-escalate and cool the temperature down. What or who were the police protecting that day? I can find no better answer than that the police were ultimately protecting their own authority.”
The highly aggressive tactics of the Queen and Spadina kettling, and the shooting of Sammy Yatim, share an uneasy commonality. They both are clear examples of a militaristic and violent approach to policing—one that most people would agree does not belong on the streets of Toronto.
Reports from Sammy’s friends and family are starting to trickle out through the media, which seem to unanimously describe him as a quiet, friendly teenager who “collected knives” and was in the process of learning English. It appears as though something had deeply shaken Sammy on the night of his death. If his loved ones are to be believed, Sammy acted wildly out of character that night, and was a threat to those around him, just as he was a threat to himself. The sensitivities of this situation were certainly not addressed, and instead, the decision to load Sammy Yatim up with bullets ended his life too early. As Martin said to me in an email: “The police must protect the public, and of course protect themselves, but one of the responsibilities of the police on Saturday morning was to protect Sammy from himself, and they seemed to have forgotten that.”
A Toronto Police media liaison officer did not respond to my request for comment this morning, but Police Chief Bill Blair did speak publicly today and recognized a “need for answers,” announcing that they have launched an investigation that will be done sometime in the next 30 days. In the meantime, there's a memorial for Sammy at Dundas and Bellwoods and two demonstrations are being held tonight at Yonge and Dundas Square and around Trinity Bellwoods park in his memory and to demonstrate the public’s need for answers in connection to this shooting.
Follow Patrick on Twitter: @patrickmcguire
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