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Inquest begins into shooting deaths of three people by Toronto police

A member of the Police Special Investigations Unit inspects a used shell casing after Michael Eligon was fatally shot by the Police after allegedly threatening officers with scissors in Toronto on Friday February 3, 2012.

Chris Young/The Globe and Mail

An inquest into the police-shooting deaths of three people begins Tuesday, at a time when the Toronto Police Service is facing scrutiny over the controversial July killing of a teenager aboard a streetcar.

The coroner's inquest into the deaths of Michael Eligon, 29, Reyal Jardine-Douglas, 25, and Sylvia Klibingaitis, 52, comes amid debate about use-of-force in the shooting of Sammy Yatim, who was alone on a streetcar wielding a knife when he was shot by police and then, after falling to the floor with multiple bullet wounds, tasered.

The province's Special Investigations Unit laid a second-degree murder charge against the shooting officer, Constable James Forcillo. In the instances of Mr. Eligon, Mr. Jardine-Douglas and Ms. Klibingaitis, the SIU cleared authorities of wrongdoing.

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The three cases will be heard in one inquest since they all involve people believed to have had mental health issues and who were killed after approaching officers with weapons.

"My hope is that this inquest will finally drive it home to Toronto police that they must attempt de-escalation in situations such as faced by these three people and Sammy Yatim and so on," said Peter Rosenthal, who represents Mr. Eligon's family with co-counsel Reni Chang. "Many inquests have recommended increased emphasis on de-escalation, but still there are situations where it doesn't seem to be attempted at all."

Efforts to reach Toronto Police Services by deadline Thanksgiving Monday were unsuccessful.

The three Toronto-area residents lived separate lives but the circumstances of their deaths, spread over two years, were similar.

Mr. Eligon fled a hospital wearing his gown in February, 2012, after he was involuntarily admitted under the Mental Health Act. He stole scissors from a convenience store and, after cutting the owner and trying to break into two houses, he ignored police orders and yelled something along the lines of, "One of you is going to die" before being shot in the clavicle, according to the SIU.

In August, 2010, Toronto police confronted Mr. Jardine-Douglas, a Pickering, Ont., man – who, according to his family, suffered paranoia – on a bus after receiving calls about irrational behaviour. When he pulled a knife and approached officers, ignoring their orders, police shot him.

Mr. Jardine-Douglas's family had called police to help their son get treatment for mental health issues, and were waiting with officers when they heard over a two-way radio that he'd been killed.

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Ms. Klibingaitis, for her part, called 911 in October, 2011, saying she was bipolar and wanted to commit a crime. When police arrived at her home, she emerged with a knife and went toward an officer in a threatening manner, the SIU said. She refused to drop it and was shot.

The SIU called her death a "tragic event" but said the officer was justified in using lethal force under the circumstances.

Dave McFadden, president of the Police Association of Ontario, said police – more often than ever before – are challenged to deal with the "social issues that mental illness presents."

"We have become the first call for help and the last resort when help can't be found elsewhere," he said.

Mr. Rosenthal said he will ask the jury to recommend that officers face the prospect of internal discipline if they don't try to use de-escalation tactics. A tentative version of his proposal reads: "Police officers should be subject to discipline if they fail to attempt de-escalation in situations where such attempts were feasible and might have prevented an injury or death caused by the same or another officer."

The inquest, which may make recommendations but is not tasked with finding fault, is expected to last eight weeks.

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