Those who want tighter control on the use of lethal force by police may be disappointed by the mixed verdict in the Sammy Yatim case. They should not be. The prosecution of Constable James Forcillo signals an important and encouraging shift.
A police officer was found guilty of attempted murder for shooting a man in the course of his duties. That is very rare. An officer was charged with second-degree murder and tried (although found not guilty on that charge) after shooting a man who had a weapon. That is almost unheard of. The whole Yatim episode is forcing the police to look hard at how they use force and how they deal with disturbed individuals.
It was not long ago that police had, if not carte blanche, then at least broad discretion in how they employed violent force. They were the ones on the scene. They were the ones with the authority to act. Few were willing to second guess them if they used their guns.
That is changing. One impetus for change is the emergence of on-the-scene video that gives an up-close look at police encounters. Another is the push for greater scrutiny of police and greater accountability for officers. It is harder and harder to hide behind a badge. Yet another is the growing acceptance that many of the threatening individuals police face are mentally or emotionally disturbed and that there are often better ways to neutralize them than violent force. The Yatim case underlines all of these developments.
It was clear from the moment a video of the shooting went viral after that July night in 2013 that something had gone tragically wrong. A young man waving a knife on an empty streetcar was felled by a volley of shots from Constable Forcillo, then struck by a second volley as he lay on the floor. The video shocked viewers and put police under pressure.
Why did they not try to talk the young man down instead of resorting to gunfire? Why couldn't they have neutralized him with a taser? Why did no one appear to be in charge of the chaotic scene?
It was the latest and most dramatic case of police using lethal force against a person in mental or emotional distress. In incident after incident, police have used gunfire or other serious force to subdue individuals who turned out to be disturbed, confused or mentally ill. Mr. Yatim, we later learned, was on ecstasy. He was clearly troubled. He should not have had to die that night.
Police commanders said from the beginning that, whatever the outcome of the criminal proceeding, the case would lead them to re-examine how they handle disturbed people. They retained a retired judge to report on the issue.
Toronto police Chief Mark Saunders insisted after Monday's verdict that his force is scouring the globe for better equipment and techniques. The goal, he said, was "zero harm, zero death" when police confront people in crisis. Mayor John Tory said he would join in a push to ensure this "dark moment for our city" brings "real, meaningful change."
The public should hold them to it. The Yatim shooting shook confidence in the police. It made everyone wonder why, if police are as well trained as their leaders claim, an officer would resort to lethal force within seconds against a man standing alone in an empty streetcar. Constable Forcillo said in court that he was only acting as he was trained when he used his gun on a man he believed was a deadly threat.
The good news is that Constable Forcillo was brought to account. It was always unlikely that a jury would find a police officer guilty of second-degree murder for shooting a man who had pulled a knife on a transit vehicle and refused repeated demands to drop it. But the guilty verdict on the count of attempted murder sends a strong message all the same. Constable Forcillo may go to jail if his lawyer's next moves fall short.
Police around the country will take note. The head of the Toronto police union said the verdict could have a chilling effect on the mentality of police. Let's hope so. Police should always think twice before wielding a firearm. In her dignified statement outside the courthouse, Mr. Yatim's mother said that "for the sake of this great country," police must remain "a source of confidence, security and respect for all people." How true. But that will only be so if they use their powers with restraint. The Forcillo trial reminded the whole country that a police officer, like anyone else, is subject to the law.