Advertisement
VICE News

A Cop on Trial for Murder in Toronto Breaks His Silence

James Forcillo defended his decision to shoot 18-year-old Sammy Yatim, who died in a hail of bullets after refusing to drop a knife. If convicted, he would be the first Toronto police officer guilty of murder in at least 25 years.

by Tamara Khandaker
Nov 27 2015, 2:09pm

Marta Iwanek/The Canadian Press

"I've thought about this incident thousands of times, I live with it every day," Toronto police officer James Forcillo told a packed courtroom. "The only conclusion I can come to is he was coming off that streetcar."

More than two years after that muggy summer night in the Canadian metropolis, Forcillo broke his silence this week, defending his decision to shoot 18-year-old Sammy Yatim, who died in a hail of bullets after refusing to drop a knife.

The officer, who has pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder and attempted murder, argued that he acted in self-defense, and that Yatim posed an "imminent threat" to his life and to the lives of those around him. He testified that he acted by the book, doing precisely what he was trained to do, as Yatim's mother sat in the front row and listened.

Yatim's death in July 2013 stunned Torontonians, who hit the streets by the hundreds in protest, demanding "justice for Sammy" and other victims of police brutality after cell phone video of the incident went viral. Activists called on Toronto police to change their use-of-force tactics.

There's no question Forcillo killed Yatim, whom the prosecution paints as a victim of excessive use of force, shot multiple times, even after he was already on the ground, and then tasered. A jury has to figure out if shooting nine bullets at him, while he was inside an empty streetcar that was surrounded by armed police officers, was necessary. 

If convicted, Forcillo's trial would be extraordinary — only six other Toronto police officers have faced murder or manslaughter charges in the last 25 years, but none have been found guilty.

Related: Sammy Yatim's Death Shook Toronto — Now the Cop Charged with Murder Is on Trial

On Thursday, Forcillo described the "unusual" scene he encountered at the downtown Toronto intersection the night of July 27: the streetcar surrounded by people, some crying, others with their cell phones out. He'd been told there were no injuries, but there was no way to be sure, he said.

He positioned himself about 10 feet from Yatim, but Forcillo says it felt so close that he could touch him. He began yelling "loud, clear" commands at Yatim to drop the switchblade he was holding, but the teen refused. The best scenario would've been for Yatim to drop the knife and get arrested on the streetcar, Forcillo said, and for a moment, it appeared that it would happen — Yatim stepped backwards, which Forcillo saw as a "partial success."

At this point, taking a more moderate tone, Forcillo says he told Yatim — who was found to have ecstasy, marijuana and cocaine in his system — "if you take one more step in this direction, I'm going to shoot you."

Asked about Yatim's disposition, Forcillo said he was "completely unafraid," later calling him "the most determined person I've ever dealt with." Even with a gun pointed right at him, Yatim "couldn't care less," Forcillo said, recalling his clenched jaw, widened eyes, flushed face and tense body language in the moments before he was shot.

"That guy at the bar, looking for a fistfight — that's what he looked like to me."

Forcillo called Yatim's stillness in moments before he shot "the calm before the storm," saying the teen appeared to be making a decision before flicking his knife at the officer.

"I see this. Now it becomes clear to me. He's coming."

Related: Police Have Killed at Least 1,083 Americans Since Michael Brown's Death

One by one, Forcillo shut down alternatives presented by the prosecution as to how he could've handled the situation, calling one idea suggested by American use-of-force expert Robert Warshaw "absurd."

Warsaw suggested said Forcillo could have tried to start a dialogue, trapped Yatim inside the streetcar by shutting the doors, blocked him from exiting with a bike or a streetcar, or thrown something at him to distract him, like a baton, a paint can, or a baseball.

"At no point in any of the training I've ever taken has anyone ever advocated as a use-of-force option to throw things at the person," Forcillo said. "I don't even know what to say to that."

As the jury was shown Yatim's slim physique in a shirtless mirror selfie, Forcillo said he appeared to be a "young, fit male," who he had "no doubt could move very quickly" and was capable of attacking him.

Hand-to-hand combat is spontaneous and should be used to push the person out of the way, only to transition to a firearm, said Forcillo, citing his training. Pepper spray, he said, would have required him to be within four to eight feet of Yatim, while doing nothing to incapacitate him. A 21-inch baton was also inappropriate in this situation, he said. "If I could hit him with a baton, he could hit me with a knife."

Forcillo said in his training, he'd been taught a person can cover a large distance very quickly. "As a police officer, we're always at a disadvantage in terms of reaction time," he said, adding that having a firearm "takes a second or two out of the equation."

This wasn't the first time Forcillo had taken his gun out of his holster on the job, the court heard. In fact, over the course of his three-year career as a police officer, he'd drawn his gun about a dozen times. The standoff with Yatim, however, was the first time he'd ever opened fire.

Follow Tamara Khandaker on Twitter: @anima_tk