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Toronto's Mayor and Chief of Police Vow to Tackle Use of Force

Officer James Forcillo was found not guilty of second-degree murder or manslaughter

by Tamara Khandaker
Jan 25 2016, 6:05pm

Photo via the Canadian Press/Nathan Denette

Toronto's mayor and police chief are vowing to update policies on how police employ deadly force after one of the city's officers was convicted with attempted murder.

"We must learn and make sure that Sammy Yatim's death, a dark moment for our city, results in real, meaningful change," said Mayor John Tory.

"I don't think there's any officer that wakes up and says: I'm going to end up in this situation," said Chief of Police Mark Saunders. "There's an onus on us to make sure we provide our officers with the right training and the right tools."

Watch the VICE documentary BodyCams.

Toronto police officer James Forcillo was found guilty of attempted murder in the death of 18-year-old Sammy Yatim on Monday, but not guilty of two other charges.

A collective gasp was heard through the courtroom — packed with journalists, lawyers, family members, and police officers who sat in solidarity with Forcillo — and whispers followed, as the decisions was read. Forcillo himself revealed little emotion, staring straight ahead the whole time.

The verdict comes on the sixth day of deliberations, as the jury grappled with the fate of the Toronto cop who killed a knife-wielding teenager in the summer of 2013, shooting him eight times on an empty streetcar in the west end of the city.

Forcillo was acquitted of second-degree murder and manslaughter.

His lawyers have moved to have the charges stayed — meaning he wouldn't actually be convicted or see jail time — as they are arguing there was an abuse of abuse of process on the state's part. They will present their motions between May 16 and 27.

"If the state gave him that training, they should not be entitled to a conviction in the matter."

"Const. Forcillo substantially followed the police training he was given," Brauti told reporters outside the courthouse. "And so if the state gave him that training, they should not be entitled to a conviction in the matter."

Forcillo's team also plans to challenge the mandatory minimum four-year sentence for attempted murder with a weapon, arguing that it's a cruel and unusual punishment that violates Charter rights.

Brauti said he is concerned that the verdict was compromised, with the decision coming down to a battle of wills in the jury room. He added that the odds were against his client from the start, referring to the proceedings as a "trial by YouTube."

Meanwhile, Forcillo is out on bail. He remains employed by the Toronto police, but is suspended with pay until the sentencing outcome.

Forcillo was found not guilty on the two charges that pertained to the initial decision to open fire on Yatim. On those counts, the jury found him to be justified. Forcillo was found guilty of attempted murder because he continued to fire shots after Yatim was already lying on the floor of the streetcar.

"For me, it's the first step," said Sahar Bahadi, Yatim's mother, in a statement. "I would now like to be part of the discussion to change the police training policies when dealing with people in crisis so this painful incident does not repeat itself."

Bahadi, who became active in the protests that demanded accountability for Yatim's death and was a fixture in the courtroom throughout the trial, is suing the Toronto police for $2 million in damages.

"Nothing in this world will compensate me for the loss of my son nor will anything bring him back to me but I would like, for the sake of this great country, for the police to remain a source of confidence, security, and respect for all people."

"Nothing in this world will compensate me for the loss of my son nor will anything bring him back to me but I would like, for the sake of this great country, for the police to remain a source of confidence, security, and respect for all people," the statement concludes.

It's now been over two years since Forcillo fired two volleys of shots at Yatim, leaving him fatally wounded.

Widely circulated cell phone videos of the incident left the city stunned, rousing hundreds of people to hit the streets in protest and spurring an independent review of the Toronto police's use of lethal force, with a special focus on interactions with people who might be mentally or emotionally disturbed, or cognitively impaired.

Many experts believe outcry from the video also led to Forcillo's remarkably rare murder charge. Forcillo is the first police officer in Canada in 16 years to be charged with murder for shooting someone on the job. Had he been found guilty on the second degree murder charge, that would have been a first in Canada.

Over the course of a closely-watched, three-month long trial, Forcillo's lawyers contended that the officer shot Yatim in self-defense.

Lawyer Peter Brauti said Yatim "got himself shot" by refusing to co-operate, placing the blame squarely on his shoulders. The lawyers contended that Forcillo had reasonable grounds to believe he needed to protect himself and those around him.

The Crown, for their part, argued that his actions weren't reasonable or necessary, and that Forcillo was a "hothead and a bully" who started shooting instead of trying to verbally deescalate the situation by connecting with a person who was visibly in crisis because he felt disrespected by the "mouthy, mocking teenager."

"The defendant shot Sammy Yatim not because he posed any real threat to anyone, but rather because Yatim simply moved 50 centimeters and failed to obey the ultimatum," said Crown prosecutor Milan Rupic in his closing arguments.

The three-month-long trial came to a close on Monday when a jury — given the complex task of weighing a a mountain of evidence, including expert and eyewitness testimony, video footage, and audio recordings from inside the streetcar, as well as testimony from Forcillo himself — read out their decision.

If they accepted one or both of Forcillo's defenses or were left with a reasonable doubt, they would have to acquit him, Ontario Superior Court Justice Edward Then told the jury in a lengthy, detailed charge.

Either way, the verdict would not have come without controversy.

After the trial wrapped, and the jury began their deliberations, reports emerged that Forcillo had been added to a watch list of cops due to his reliance on his firearm. The fact that he had drawn his gun "about a dozen times" brought him to the attention of an early-warning system designed to prevent excessive use of force.

Related: A Cop on Trial for Murder in Toronto Breaks His Silence

Significant revelations were made during the trial, painting a clearer picture of what transpired in Yatim's last moments for the public, who had only seen cell phone video of the standoff. They watched security footage from the streetcar as Forcillo, gun drawn, and other officers ordered Yatim several times to drop his knife. The teen retreated a few paces before starting to walk back to his original spot — that's when shots rang out and Yatim collapsed.

The audio and video of the shooting, and the minutes preceding it, from inside the streetcar proved to be key evidence.

The jury saw Yatim, who had "moderate to moderately-high" levels of ecstasy in his system at the time, try to slash the throat of a woman at the back of the streetcar with a switchblade and expose himself, as passengers scrambled to get out.

That woman, Bridgette McGregor, approached the defense to provide dramatic testimony on Forcillo's behalf — she was so distraught as her 911 call was played in court that Brauti requested a recess, The Canadian Press reported.

"I need people to know that Yatim was dangerous. He was going to kill me."

"I need people to know that Yatim was dangerous," she said. "He was going to kill me."

The jury also watched an initially calm exchange between the teen and the streetcar driver Chad Seymour, who escaped as soon as Yatim made his approach, switchblade in hand.

Instead of getting off right away — he was uncomfortable with having his back to Yatim while he was holding a knife — Seymour engaged him in conversation, asking if there was anything he could do to help. Yatim said he needed a phone to call his father, and listened when Seymour said they'd get one and asked him to have a seat. Yatim told him that this "was not a hostage situation." But he jumped out of his seat and came at Seymour as soon as he saw the police cruisers arrive — that's when Seymour, already positioned on the streetcar's steps, ran off.

In addition, a janitor who had bumped into Yatim an hour earlier at a subway station, testified that the teen appeared distressed and asked him repeatedly to call the police before leaving.

None of this should've mattered. Having seen and heard it all, the jurors were told not to give any weight to Yatim's state of mind. In his instructions, Then explained that only Forcillo's state of mind was relevant since he wasn't aware of Yatim's conduct prior to his arrival and couldn't have been influenced by it.

In video of the confrontation, Yatim taunted the officers, yelling "pussy." The court heard Forcillo warn him, "You take one step in this direction and [unintelligible] shoot you. I'm telling you right now." Yatim stepped forward to roughly where he was standing before, and Forcillo fired the first three shots, knocking Yatim to the ground. A few seconds later, six more shots.

Notably, Forcillo testified that he fired the second volley because he believed Yatim was standing up to "continue the fight" and had reached a 45-degree angle. But the video shows Yatim struggling to lift himself up, barely getting up off the floor — Brauti defended this as an "honest but mistaken belief" in his closing remarks.

The judge, in one of his corrected instructions to the jury on Thursday, said accepting Forcillo's testimony — that he believed he had reasonable grounds to shoot Yatim — wasn't enough to acquit him. They would instead have to consider if shooting Yatim was objectively reasonable in the given circumstances.

On this basis, the jury never got to hear the defense's theory that Yatim was attempting to commit 'suicide by cop,' which they argued was supported by text messages and Google searches found on his phone.

Six months prior to his death, Yatim had searched "the easiest way to kill yourself," and clicked on an article called "how to kill yourself without feeling any pain," the court heard, without the presence of the jury. He'd also sent text messages the defense argued would show that he was under stress, having money probems, and had been kicked out of his house.

"I don't know bro, I'm actually getting so stressed right now I don't know what to fuckin' do," said one message.

But the 'suicide by cop' theory was irrelevant, Then decided, after it was presented using an expert witness in the absence of the jury. Since Forcillo didn't know about any of it and couldn't have been informed by it, Then dismissed the theory and the contents of the cell phone that would support the theory the teen was suicidal.

Then also dismissed the defense's motion for a mistrial on the grounds that the jury had already been exposed to Yatim's state of mind in various ways through the Crown's testimony, putting his faith in the jury's ability to follow instructions to ignore Yatim's state of mind.

Follow Tamara Khandaker on Twitter: @anima_tk