Ontario’s Ombudsman is on a collision course with the province’s police officers for his decision to investigate guidelines on use of force in the immediate wake of the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Sammy Yatim by Toronto police.
André Marin announced Thursday that he is reviewing the provincial government’s guidelines to police on de-escalating conflicts. The shooting of Mr. Yatim on July 27 – after the streetcar passengers he had threatened with a knife had cleared the car – is already the subject of probes by the Special Investigations Unit and Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair. Police advocates are accusing the Ombudsman of undermining the fact-finding efforts already under way.
As former head of the SIU, Mr. Marin investigated several police shootings in the past, and this probe marks the latest chapter in a long, antagonistic relationship with Ontario police forces. Just before Thursday’s news conference a series of vitriolic tweets allegedly from a Durham Regional Police officer aimed at the Ombudsman was a further sign of the continuing animosity.
Mike McCormack, the president of the Toronto Police Association which represents officers, including those subject to investigation, accused Mr. Marin of “grandstanding.”
“I’m a little bit shocked that somebody such as the Ombudsman would not be respecting due process and waiting until he got all the facts and information and I think that the optics are terrible in the sense that his comments clearly do not indicate confidence in the SIU or the Toronto Police or the investigative process,” he said.
However, SIU spokeswoman Monica Hudon noted the two investigations did not overlap or undermine each other. The agency’s investigation is into whether there was any criminal wrongdoing, while Mr. Marin’s probe will focus on the government’s direction to police forces.
Asked whether the SIU would have preferred for Mr. Marin to wait, she said: “We’re looking at two completely different things. It doesn’t really matter.”
While the Toronto police would only say that Mr. Marin is looking at the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services and not the force, Alok Mukherjee, chair of the Toronto Police Services Board, welcomed the ombudsman’s investigation as an “useful exercise.”
Mr. Mukherjee was quick to point out that the Toronto police receive “very good training” and that he supports the use-of-force model that officers currently use.
“I have spoken with Mr. Marin that to look at provincial standards and guidelines is not a bad idea. It is a good idea,” he said.
While the ombudsman’s office has jurisdiction over the ministry and not police services, Mr. Marin is hoping police forces across the province will share information about their procedures to aid with his investigation, which he estimates will take six to 12 months to complete.
Mr. Marin did not say specifically what guidelines and procedures his office will review. The investigation will not look specifically at when and on whom tasers should be used, for example. (Mr. Yatim was tasered by an officer after he was shot, but that officer is not being investigated by the SIU.)
Rather, Mr. Marin said he wants to look at previous recommendations that have been made and whether they are being followed.
“It’s broad enough to include de-escalation of violence on the scene. It has no particular emphasis on tasering, but of course, tasering is an escalation,” Mr. Marin said.
Peter Brauti, the lawyer for Constable James Forcillo who is being investigated by the SIU in the shooting of Mr. Yatim, said that the broad and seemingly general purview of the ombudsman’s investigation is unhelpful.
“If the ombudsman got up and said ‘It would have been nice if tasers would be more readily available. So, I’m going to do a review of the availability of tasers to officers,’ that’s helpful. But to stand up and say, ‘Hey I’ve looked at some preliminary matters, I’m going to hold a review on policies and procedures,’ that’s not helpful,” Mr. Brauti said.
The coroner’s office has not yet called a public inquest into Mr. Yatim’s death. However, the office is looking into three similar cases between 2010 and 2012. Reyal Jardine-Douglas, Sylvia Klibingaitis and Michael Eligon died after police fired at them when they were carrying knives or scissors, and they were believed to be mentally ill at the time of the shootings. The inquest into their deaths is set to begin on Oct. 15.
Madeleine Meilleur, Minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services, said the government “will co-operate fully” with Mr. Marin. She noted that her officials are conducting a continuing use-of-force review.
Mr. Yatim’s parents welcomed Mr. Marin’s review, saying they hope that “further conflicts between interested parties” are avoided as the SIU probe continues.
“We are grateful that this investigation will further public dialogue on police procedures and acceptable de-escalation tactics, and that this inquiry will hopefully, finally, lead to the implementation, not just recommendation, of safe conflict resolution procedures,” they said in a statement.
Clayton Ruby, a prominent Toronto lawyer and civil-liberties advocate, lauded Mr. Marin for tackling the issue, saying the SIU and other police oversight bodies have a poor record.
“He’s saying this is a problem that no one is dealing with and I better do it,” he said. “I think if somebody else was dealing with this, he wouldn’t feel the need to do it.”
In a news conference Thursday, Mr. Marin lamented that there have been similar deaths in the past. “It seems to be like Groundhog Day – inquest after inquest, police shooting after police shooting,” Mr. Marin said.
Shortly before he announced the probe, Mr. Marin was attacked on Twitter as a “carded member of Al Qaida.” Mr. Marin then alleged the person behind the anonymous account, which was later deleted, to be Durham Regional Detective Constable Scott Dennis. Deputy Chief Paul Martin, who said the account appears to have been created with the officer’s work e-mail address, said the force is investigating.
With a report from Ajit Jain, Special to The Globe and Mail