A photo from last week's Sammy Yatim protest. By Michael Toledano for VICE Canada.
Just over three weeks 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), and this morning, news broke that Forcillo is being charged with second-degree murder. This will undoubtedly come as a massive relief for many people—first and foremost being 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 enraged signs 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 James Forcillo is facing such a serious charge. It was only about 24 hours ago that I was expressing my skepticism with a couple of friends over a just outcome from the Toronto Police’s watchdog Special Investigations Group. I know I wasn’t alone in thinking that, and it’s not hard to understand why. From 2008-2013, 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—shot by two different witnesses—that really invigorated the city and the media’s criticism and disgust at the level of force used against the teenager. Without that HD footage circulating around social media within hours of Sammy’s death, there would be more opportunity to discount the eyewitness reports, change up the truth, and perhaps absolve James Forcillo of culpability. It’s not likely 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.
Follow Patrick on Twitter: @patrickmcguire
More on Sammy Yatim: