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The Special Investigations Unit is looking into a fatal shooting involving police on a Toronto streetcar after a man died early Saturday. (Youtube)
The Special Investigations Unit is looking into a fatal shooting involving police on a Toronto streetcar after a man died early Saturday. (Youtube)

Police conduct back in spotlight after Toronto streetcar shooting Add to ...

A video of Toronto police officers fatally shooting a knife-wielding man in an empty city streetcar has gone viral and raised questions about police protocol and behaviour.

The case surfaces as the Ontario coroner’s office delves into what role officers played in the deaths of three people, thought to be mentally ill, killed by Toronto police between 2010 and 2012.

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In the latest case, early Saturday, witnesses said the suspect, Sammy Yatim, brandished a knife and exposed himself before ordering passengers and the driver off the streetcar as it approached Dundas Street West and Bellwoods Avenue.

The video, taken by a passerby, shows Mr. Yatim, 18, standing in the aisle near the front of the streetcar, its door open and interior lights on, as five police officers, four with weapons drawn, repeatedly order him to “drop the knife” over the wail of sirens.

When Mr. Yatim walks toward the door, nine gunshots ring out and he crumples out of view. As the sirens intensify, police close around the car and the sound of a taser can be heard.

Toronto Police Service spokesman Mark Pugash said he cannot comment on the shooting and what led police to fire on Mr. Yatim, who died of gunshot wounds to the chest. He said he was “not allowed” to discuss the case because it is under review by the Special Investigations Unit.

Standard police protocol calls for shooting only when life or limb is on the line, said Matthew Light, an associate professor of criminology at the University of Toronto.

“One thing that’s universal to all [police] departments across Canada is you can only shoot to kill to protect life, not to prevent damage to property or prevent someone from fleeing,” Prof. Light said.

While Mr. Yatim has not been identified as suffering from mental illness, his behaviour prior to the shooting suggests he was a troubled young man.

Witnesses to the shooting and a spokesman for the Toronto Transit Commission said the streetcar was empty save for Mr. Yatim. All TTC vehicles are equipped with closed-circuit television cameras, and images are used in investigations, a transit spokesman said.

Martin Baron, 47, was returning home with his wife and teenage son when he says he saw people running off the streetcar. Mr. Baron said the suspect was “perfectly still.”

“It escalated very, very quickly, and then shots were fired. About 30 seconds after they stopped shooting they actually tasered him – you could hear the taser – and then an officer went in the back door of the streetcar and you could see them performing CPR on him,” Mr. Baron said.

Toronto Councillor Janet Davis took to Twitter to question the seemingly excessive force. “He was cornered on an empty streetcar!” she wrote. Ms. Davis asked if a crisis intervention team, which deploys mental-health professionals and police officers, was on the scene. “Police need better training & support – and direction. This kind of thing should never happen,” Ms. Davis tweeted.

A vigil at the site of the shooting is planned for Monday evening, according to Facebook page set up for Mr. Yatim.

Last year, an inquest was called into the death of three people who appeared to have mental-health issues when they were shot and killed by Toronto police between 2010 and 2012. The province’s coroner’s office has not yet announced a date for the inquest.

In one of the cases, a 29-year-old man, Michael Eligon, fled a hospital where he had been involuntarily admitted under the Mental Health Act. Wearing only a hospital gown and armed with two pairs of scissors, Mr. Eligon attempted to rob a convenience store, steal a car and break into several houses before police caught up with him. Police said officers ordered him to drop the weapon, but that he was fired upon when he refused and approached them.

The Special Investigations Unit cleared the officer involved in the shooting, but in its report raised questions about whether officers should be trained differently for crisis situations.

With files from Joel Eastwood.

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