Two videos posted online showing a Toronto police officer shooting and killing a knife-wielding teenager on a streetcar are shocking, but they should not lead people to assume that the police used excessive force; the public should wait for a report from the Special Investigations Unit before reaching any conclusions.
The videos show that the officer fired nine shots toward 18-year-old Sammy Yatim, as the teenager, who had ignored repeated commands to drop a knife he was holding, began moving toward the front steps out of the streetcar. Two officers had their firearms aimed into the streetcar; one fired three shots, there was a pause, and then six more shots were heard.
The firing of nine shots is concerning, but there are things to consider. Officers who have made the split-second decision to use lethal force will rarely fire a single shot. This is because the average police-issue sidearm will hit a target that is between six and 21 feet away less than 25 per cent of the time, according to New York Police Department statistics that were analyzed by The New York Times in 2007. Police sidearms are chosen for their reliability, not their accuracy. Even at a range of six feet or less, the accuracy rate is below 50 per cent. Officers are consequently trained only to stop an armed person from advancing; there is no gain in attempting to inflict a wound, and the officer will continue to fire until he or she is certain the armed person no longer poses a threat.
The nine shots fired by the Toronto officer, so vividly recorded, seem like a ghastly number. But there is sufficient reason to believe the officer was responding within the bounds of his training and duties.
This is, of course, not the only question regarding the tragic case of Sammy Yatim, but the online videos have made it the most pressing. Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair was right to acknowledge the public’s concerns on Monday, and to vow to co-operate with the SIU, to reach out to Mr. Yatim’s family and to undertake a review of police training and procedures. There have long been calls for the Toronto police to better handle situations involving the mentally ill, and this incident may become a catalyst for change. But the public should not overreact to the images seen on the Internet before all the facts are known.