If anyone can help the Toronto Police Service break out of their fatal trap – every so often shooting a mentally ill person dead in circumstances that cry out for caution and de-escalation – it is retired Ontario judge Dennis O’Connor. And since Toronto police are far from the only force in that trap, his insights stand to be shared across Canada.
Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair surely wanted to shake up police culture when he chose Mr. O’Connor to do an internal review of the police shooting that killed Sammy Yatim, 18, on a streetcar last month. Mr. O’Connor had to balance the complexities of national security in the age of terrorism against individual liberties when he led the Maher Arar torture inquiry. He also led an inquiry into a tainted water supply in Walkerton, Ont. He has the skill and the heart to find the practical solutions that have eluded police for years. The police board needs to ensure that the internal review is made completely public.
Mr. Yatim was alone on a streetcar, holding a knife near the open front doors, when a police officer felt threatened and felled him with three bullets, then fired another six bullets into him, and then tasered him. In 1997, a similar incident occurred on a Toronto bus. Edmund Yu, a man with schizophrenia was alone on a bus after he had slapped a woman. Two officers approached and tried to persuade him to go to hospital. When he pulled out a hammer, he was shot dead. “You shoot until the threat is gone,” a weapons trainer at a police college told the inquest. And there is no magic-bullet alternative to firearms, he said.
That weapons trainer was thinking of magic bullets only in terms of weapons. Standing a few feet away from Mr. Yatim with guns drawn yelling “drop the knife” was a dangerous strategy; it invited an immediate action from someone who might not have been capable of it at that moment, or a response of “shoot until the threat is gone.” Telling him firmly but quietly to go further inside and sit down might have been attempted instead. There appeared to be time to tell him that they didn’t want to hurt him, that they wanted to get him help. Similarly, did Mr. Yu feel dangerously crowded by police throwing questions at him from close range?
Death is not, or at least should not be, inevitable in these situations. These should not be akin to classical tragedies, in which each side plays out their role in the only way they possibly can. Dennis O’Connor needs to re-write the script.