An armed, mentally disturbed man incites a panic on Toronto public transit. The vehicle is cleared of its passengers and the man stews alone inside until police arrive. He is contained when officers confront him, and ignores their demands to drop his weapon. Moments later, he is shot dead.
The scenario resembles what transpired over the weekend when police gunned down 18-year-old Sammy Yatim as he stood alone with a knife in an empty Toronto streetcar.
But it unfolded 16 years earlier. Police fatally shot Edmond Yu, a 35-year-old paranoid schizophrenic who was wielding a hammer on an empty Toronto city bus in February, 1997.
“It’s a terrible flashback because the circumstances seem similar in so many ways,” said Louis Sokolov, a Toronto lawyer who represented Mr. Yu’s family at a coroner’s inquest.
The inquest’s jury handed down 24 recommendations, among them mandatory crisis-resolution training for the entire Toronto police force, including lessons in fear management and de-escalation techniques, and a yearly refresher course in “use of force training.”
But video images of the shooting of Mr. Yatim captured by several bystanders that have gone viral are leaving many to wonder whether the recommendations were implemented and, if so, how effective they have been.
“One always tries to withhold judgment until the facts come out,” Mr. Sokolov said. “But from what has come out so far, it does appear to be a rather troubling case that raises huge questions about whether or not it could have been handled differently.”
Mr. Yatim has not been identified as mentally ill, but his behaviour on the streetcar, which witnesses said included exposing himself, suggests a troubled young man.
According to a Toronto Police Services response to the inquest from 2000, the department had “undertaken to train all police officers in crisis resolution” and new recruits received similar training.
Toronto Police spokesman Mark Pugash said on Monday that officers take crisis-resolution and use-of-force courses annually. He would not elaborate.
“That is at the heart of the investigation” into Mr. Yatim’s death, Mr. Pugash said, referring to a Special Investigations Units probe. “And I am not in a position to talk about anything at the heart of the investigation.”
Police Services, responding to recommendations from the Yu inquest, created mobile crisis intervention teams, which consist of a plain-clothes officer and a psychiatric nurse trained to defuse confrontations with mentally ill people.
Police will not say whether a team was summoned to deal with Mr. Yatim, but they do not respond to threats of violence and are typically on duty only between 1 and 11 p.m. In Mr. Yatim’s case, it was after midnight and he was carrying a knife.
Underscoring the widespread public concern over the officers’ handling of Mr. Yatim, Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair held a news conference on Monday – a rare move when an incident is being examined by the SIU – and wondered aloud whether anything could have been done differently.
Juries for several inquests into the deaths of mentally ill people killed by Toronto police officers over many years have debated that question.
Before Mr. Yu, there was Wayne Williams and Lester Donaldson. More recently, there was Byron Debassige and Reyal Jardine-Douglas. An inquest into three other deaths is awaiting scheduling.
Ontario ombudsman André Marin said he is considering opening an investigation into whether the provincial government provides “sufficient” guidelines on de-escalating conflict to police forces.
“Certainly, when you look at the video that’s out there on the internet … it raises issues as to whether the province is fulfilling its responsibility to make sure police services have their ducks in a row,” he said.
With reports from Jill Mahoney and Patrick WhiteReport Typo/Error
Follow us on Twitter: