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Former judge appointed to Yatim probe seeks balanced police powers

The Honourable Frank Iacobucci, former Supreme Court Justice and Independent Reviewer, speaks on his report on First Nations Representation on Ontario Juries Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2013 in Thunder Bay.

Brent Linton/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The man appointed Friday to assist Toronto's Police Chief with an internal review after the killing of Sammy Yatim said he will consider full-time mobile crisis teams and revamped de-escalation training, in a bid to "improve the equilibrium" between police powers and civil rights.

Former Supreme Court judge Frank Iacobucci called Mr. Yatim's death "tragic" and emphasized his commitment to independence as he reviews the Toronto Police Service's use-of-force tactics in dealing with emotionally disturbed people.

"Police have a very special role to play and they have a lot of power and authority to do their job, but that power and authority has to be exercised in a balanced way," he told The Globe and Mail on Friday evening, hours after Police Chief Bill Blair announced his appointment. "This is all about trying to improve the equilibrium – the balance between policing and respect for civil rights."

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Mr. Yatim was alone on a streetcar and wielding a knife when a police officer fired three shots and then, six seconds after the 18-year-old fell to the floor, discharged six more bullets. Another officer then tasered Mr. Yatim.

Constable James Forcillo has been charged with second-degree murder and now faces trial, rendering his conduct outside the scope of Chief Blair's internal review – a two-pronged process that includes a mandated investigation into the shooting and a separate use-of-force examination.

Mr. Iacobucci replaces his friend, former judge Dennis O'Connor, who withdrew Wednesday amid controversy over his ties to a law firm that acts in civil suits involving allegations of wrongful police use of lethal force. The new appointment was met with cautious optimism from the victim's mother, who said in a statement it's "too early to tell" whether Mr. Iacobucci's review will bring meaningful changes.

"No family should have to lose a loved one this way," Sahar Bahadi said.

"Sammy didn't have to die. Something went very wrong. I really hope that the Toronto Police Chief understands this, and that the review will save lives," she added.

Mr. Iacobucci said he will "absolutely" consider the prospect of suggesting changes to police training and recommending 24/7 mobile crisis teams consisting of mental-health practitioners and police officers. Currently, the teams don't operate around the clock – they work until 9 p.m. at the latest – and don't respond to armed people. In Mr. Yatim's case, it was around midnight and he was carrying a knife.

"My heart goes out to [the Yatim family]," Mr. Iacobucci said. "I'm a grandfather, I'm a father, and the thought of losing a child is one of the horrors of life."

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Chief Blair announced Mr. Iacobucci's appointment at a news conference, where he maintained the review has not been set back by Mr. O'Connor's sudden resignation. "I was very disappointed to lose someone of that calibre, but I can't tell you how pleased I am that Justice Iacobucci, when asked, stepped to the forefront and agreed immediately to take on this work," he said.

Mr. Iacobucci has spent time as Canada's deputy justice minister and deputy attorney-general, and has served as the University of Toronto's dean of law and provost. He has led discussions about residential schools on Ottawa's behalf and, most recently, was appointed to provide a provincial report about including on-reserve aboriginals on the jury roll.

"My record shows that I've done independent reviews without interference by the appointing authority," he said. "That's a threshold that must be observed."

Julian Falconer, the high-profile civil rights lawyer representing Ms. Bahadi and her daughter, said in a statement he and the women are "cautiously optimistic that [the review] will give a real voice to families," but said the force shouldn't wait for Mr. Iacobucci's report to forge ahead with full-time mobile crisis units and changes to police training.

The chief said Mr. Iacobucci's mandate will include recommending changes to the force's policies, procedures, training and equipment, looking around the world at how other forces deal with emotionally disturbed people.

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