The shooting death of Sammy Yatim aboard a city streetcar has riveted Toronto for weeks, sparked several high-profile probes and led to charges against the officer who fired nine bullets at the teenager. Now, criticism of police has intensified with the revelation that the knife-wielding teen was struck by eight of those bullets, including at least five after he had fallen to the floor of the streetcar.
Mr. Yatim, 18, was alone on the streetcar with a knife in hand when a police officer fired three shots and then, six seconds after Mr. Yatim dropped to the floor, discharged another six bullets. Constable James Forcillo, a Toronto officer for six years and a married father of two, was charged Monday with second-degree murder after a Special Investigations Unit probe into the July 27 killing.
Mr. Yatim’s family issued a statement saying they are “distressed” by the new information, and social media sites were abuzz with reaction.
The firing of nine rounds in one incident, and by a single officer, is rare: Toronto Police Services statistics show that the total number of shots fired by the entire force while on duty is a 20 to 30 a year.
Previous investigations by the SIU – the provincial agency that probes such police shootings – show the more typical number is two or three shots fired in one incident.
“What makes this case uncommon, in my opinion, is that only one officer was involved in the shooting – even though many other officers were present and some had even drawn their guns,” said Scot Wortley of the University of Toronto’s Centre for Criminology and Socio-Legal Studies.
Constable Forcillo’s lawyer, Peter Brauti, would not comment on how the new information would affect the court case, but said he is privy to “significant” details the public has not yet seen. “There’s no doubt in my mind that what’s been reported so far and what the public has at their disposal is not the full story,” he said.
Cellphone videos and surveillance footage of the Yatim shooting have been widely circulated online, depicting several officers at the scene who either did not pull out a weapon or chose not to fire. Between the first and second rounds of gunfire, at least one other officer at the scene holstered his gun, the footage shows.
Julian Falconer, a high-profile civil rights lawyer, said the footage could be used to support a future Crown argument. “Clearly, the fact that other officers were not reacting the same way Officer Forcillo did on the video corroborates undoubtedly what will be the Crown’s position: that the use of force he engaged in was unreasonable, that there were alternatives, that the threat was not a lethal threat at the time,” he said.
Mr. Falconer, who has represented the families of victims in similar incidents, said the case invites much deeper reflection on police training.
“From day one, it’s drilled into [police officers’] minds that the existence of a knife and the failure to follow an order gives them grounds to end another person’s life,” he said. “This is not new. This is just the latest death and it was caught on video.”
The SIU, which investigates civilian deaths and serious injuries involving police officers, believes only one officer – Constable Forcillo – caused the death and is not investigating the officer who tasered Mr. Yatim. Although Mr. Falconer said it would be “fanciful” to suggest the tasering officer contributed to Mr. Yatim’s death, both he and Mr. Wortley said Chief Bill Blair has the power to investigate the conduct of that officer.
“The more public outcry about the use of the taser, the more likely it is the chief will be put into a position where he has to at least ask the question and report to the public on why the taser was used – I think a lot of people in the public would like an explanation,” Mr. Wortley said. “If the chief decides not to discuss that issue and remain silent, there is a risk that the legitimacy of the police and the reputation of the police will suffer.”
Police spokesman Mark Pugash said Mr. Wortley's statement is wrong and, in fact, Chief Blair has a responsibility in law to look at the entire incident, including the tasering and to investigate the actions of all involved.
The Yatim family said they learned of the eight bullet wounds through the media on Thursday.
Autopsy and toxicology reports, which can take several months, are released to immediate family members only if they request it in writing and only if the coroner’s office has decided against an inquest. Ontario’s interim chief coroner, Dirk Huyer, said he does not believe the autopsy report on Mr. Yatim has been completed.
“Even if [the family] requested it, it wouldn’t be complete,” he said. “But on top of that, until a decision has been made about whether there will be an inquest or not, then a report won’t be released.”
A decision on whether an inquest is struck will not be made until the conclusion of all other ongoing investigations, including by the SIU, Toronto Police Services and the Ontario Ombudsman.
Constable Forcillo is out on bail and suspended with pay.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect the police statement that the chief has a legal responsibility to look at the entire incident, including the tasering and the actions of all people involved.