A protester at last year's Sammy Yatim demonstration. Photo by Michael Toledano for VICE Canada.
It’s been 362 days since Sammy Yatim, an 18 year-old, Syrian-born teenager who was brandishing a three-inch knife on a crowded Toronto streetcar, was shot nine times then posthumously tasered by the Toronto Police just outside of Trinity Bellwoods park.
Since then, officer James Forcillo has been charged with second-degree murder, and just yesterday, news broke that the Yatim family is suing the Toronto Police for $8 million in damages.
The confusing, public, violent killing of Sammy Yatim caused a shockwave of protest and outrage in Toronto last summer, largely because the incident had been caught on camera and posted to YouTube by civilians. Without such clear footage of Sammy being killed, the Toronto Police would have been able to control the narrative themselves, which would have made it much harder to discern whether or not excessive force was used. Instead, the raw, citizen-shot footage allowed the public to see an unfiltered perspective of out-of-control cops—and it sent Toronto into an uproar.
Earlier today, a report was finally released by former Supreme Court judge Frank Iacobucci who, in 84 pages, laid out a series of recommendations for Toronto’s police force in the wake of Sammy Yatim’s death. The report, entitled “POLICE ENCOUNTERS WITH PEOPLE IN CRISIS” was informed by over 100 interviews with “members of the Toronto Police Service, mental health specialists, academics, representatives of stakeholder groups, counsel for participants at inquests, and experts in specialized fields.”
The report specifically addresses the problem of using lethal force against people who appear to be mentally disturbed. Given that the unusual behaviour of Sammy Yatim on the night of his death—which was described by his friends and family as being out of character—it’s quite clear that something was mentally off on the night he was killed. Iacobucci’s report states: “The term ‘person in crisis’ includes those who are mentally ill as well as people who would be described by police as ‘emotionally disturbed.’”
The issue of dealing with an individual who is mentally disturbed, lashing out, and potentially a danger to the people around them is a delicate and difficult policing problem. And the goal of Iabucci’s study apparently is to navigate this dilemma, while still arriving at a solution where lethal force is minimized to be the very last resort. According to the report, the Toronto Police receive 20,000 calls a year involving a “person in crisis,” and between 2002-2012, the police killed five people who are considered to have been “emotionally disturbed.”
Even still, Iacobucci is careful to not blame any individuals for these deaths, Sammy Yatim included. Instead, blame is placed onto the “system.”
“The premise of the Report is that the target should be zero deaths when police interact with a member of the public—no death of the subject, the police officer involved, or any member of the public. I believe the death of a fellow human being in these encounters is a failure for which blame in many situations cannot be assigned; it is more likely a failure of a system.”
Iacobucci goes on to call the mental health system—and the government—into the conversation, stating that without their cooperation, this issue cannot possibly progress. While this is certainly a multi-level problem, the brazen killing of Sammy Yatim obviously revealed a serious need for better police training when dealing with disturbed individuals. The report stresses that “de-escalation” is a paramount skill for police officers to learn, a process that was apparently overlooked when Sammy Yatim was loudly approached by gun-toting cops last July.
The report suggests that Toronto’s mental health services should have a stronger link to the police, and it references a “Dashboard” system currently in use in Vancouver where police officers are able to quickly see “a comprehensive up-to-date list or map of available mental health resources of all types in their area.” It also suggests, more simply, that officers are acquainted with the key personnel at various mental health organizations in their district.
Moreover, Iacobucci has suggested that Toronto Police use psychologists more readily in their hiring process when selecting new constables—so that officers are assessed for their “positive traits” and that potential constables who are mentally ill or have “undesirable personality traits” are weeded out. He also recommends that psychologists are involved in the promotions of officers, which, hey, makes a lot of fucking sense.
The two most substantial changes that Iacobucci has suggested, however, are the use of “conducted energy weapons (CEWs),” or tasers, for all front-line officers (currently only supervisors and tactical officers carry them), which would be accompanied by a comprehensive study on the health risks inherent to using CEWs on people. On top of that, the report suggests that body-worn cameras are issued for “all officers who may encounter people in crisis to ensure greater accountability and transparency for all concerned.”
These two changes alone would surely reduce the risk involved when police encounter disturbed individuals; but the implementation of body-worn cameras opens up a new vortex of rules and potential operational caveats. For example, the report does not suggest that the cameras should be recording at all times, and requests that the Toronto Police establish guidelines for when the cameras can be deactivated, adding that officers may have to “file reports detailing any circumstances in which their body cameras were deactivated.”
The implications of having police officers wear body-worn cameras are quite fascinating. On the one hand, it could drastically reduce police brutality if police officers know they are being recorded. On the other hand, if these cameras can be deactivated easily, and if the footage does not automatically enter the public domain during times of police controversy, they may not be all that helpful for the people of Toronto.
In Southern California, where police officers wear body-worn cameras, use of force fell 60 percent whereas police complaints dropped 80 percent. These statistics influenced police in London to test out 500 body-worn cameras, a decision that was described by a prominent British MP as an “extremely good idea.” And, on paper, it is. We know from Russian drivers that dashboard cameras—which have become “ubiquitous" over there—have served a twofold benefit of reducing insurance fraud and also holding police more accountable during highway incidents (while simultaneously populating the internet with amazing video clips). So why wouldn’t the same kind of transparency benefit civilians when it’s applied to the police officers in Toronto?
Overall, Iacobucci’s report appears to be a very comprehensive, positive overview of recommendations for a police force that greatly needs to implement changes, so it can improve its relationship with the people it is employed to protect. But in the end, they are just that, recommendations. It doesn't appear as if the Toronto Police are under any legal obligation to implement the changes, so it’s possible that many of these suggestions could be ignored. Mayoral hopeful John Tory praised the report, but referred to it as a “blueprint” rather than an imminent change.
Hopefully these recommendations will be considered carefully and implemented properly, because it’s in everyone’s best interests for the Toronto Police to set a standard in Canada for effective, rational, and transparent policing that can improve the quality of life in the city—while further protecting disturbed individuals who deserve more compassion than was shown to Sammy Yatim last summer.