The investigators looking into the shooting of Sammy Yatim early last Saturday morning should focus on two things: the high number of shots fired by one officer; and whether or not the police could have retreated and allowed an agitated 18-year-old boy time to calm down and take himself out of harm’s way. Either a convincing case must be made that lethal force was the only option, or action must be taken against the officers involved. A good degree of public confidence in the Toronto police hangs in the balance.
At this point, the public knows only what has been revealed by videos posted on the Internet or released to the media. In one video, Mr. Yatim can be seen at the front of an otherwise empty streetcar brandishing what appears to be a knife. The front doors to the streetcar are open, and two police officers are aiming their handguns at Mr. Yatim and yelling at him to “drop the knife.” Mr. Yatim retreats into the streetcar. Then he quickly moves back toward the doors. An officer fires three quick shots into the doorway. Thanks to a new video made public on Tuesday, we now know that those shots felled Mr. Yatim. The officer who fired the three shots pauses, then fires another six rounds in a more deliberate fashion, as Mr. Yatim lies crumpled on the floor of the streetcar.
The SIU has confirmed that Mr. Yatim suffered multiple gunshot wounds, and that he was tasered after all the shots were fired. The public has learned that Mr. Yatim was a teenager born in Syria who emigrated to Canada with his family. His friends wonder why he was alone that night and so far away from his home across the city. They worry that he was lost and somehow disoriented. They cannot understand why he pulled a knife, exposed himself and ordered the passengers and driver off the streetcar, as witnesses have said. And even if that is true, they can’t understand why he had to die for it.
Could the police have shut the streetcar’s doors from the outside and waited for Mr. Yatim to calm down? Could they have backed away and established a safe perimeter while trying to de-escalate the situation? And why nine shots? Statistics show that the entire Toronto police force discharges their weapons a total of 20 to 30 times a year; nine from one officer against one suspect is very unusual. Previous SIU investigations into police shootings show that the more typical number fired is two or three.
These are the questions people want answered. They have a right to a transparent investigation, the conclusions of which don’t jar with what they have seen with their own eyes.