By now, it has become a familiar scene: A grainy video showing police officers swarming a disturbed young man with a knife.
But the way Toronto police responded to a teenager on an empty streetcar on Saturday was worlds apart from their handling of a suspected triple killer earlier this month.
After finding three people dead in Etobicoke on July 15, police officers chased a 22-year-old suspect brandishing a large knife in a park. After the man knelt down, one policeman talked to him calmly while slowly inching closer before suddenly tackling him, a video obtained by CityNews shows. Once the suspect was overpowered, a dozen or so other uniformed and plainclothes officers rushed to help arrest him.
On the face of it, the approach – a prolonged attempt to de-escalate the situation by talking to the man – appears starkly different from the way officers dealt with Sammy Yatim. The 18-year-old had brandished a knife and exposed himself on a streetcar before ordering everyone off, witnesses said.
By the time police arrived, he was standing alone on the tram still holding the knife. Several videos of the encounter appear to suggest the situation escalated quickly, with officers repeatedly yelling at him to “Drop the knife!” before one appears to have said: “If you take one step in this direction with that foot … [inaudible] die.”
A security video taken outside a nearby business shows that Mr. Yatim was still on the vehicle when a policeman fired three quick shots at him. Six seconds later, as Mr. Yatim lay on the floor with his legs moving, the policeman began firing six more bullets. In all, nine shots were fired in 12 seconds. Constable James Forcillo has been identified as the officer being investigated in the shooting.
“You’re able to see that the first three shots felled the young man,” said Ross McLean, a former Toronto police officer and now a security consultant. “He certainly didn’t look like he was going to spring to his feet and dash 20 yards and stick somebody.”
The videos leave unanswered several key questions about why the policeman fired his gun: What was Mr. Yatim doing just before the officer opened fire? Did the policeman believe that he was about to lunge forward and stab him? Why did the officer fire nine shots? Could police have instead tried to calm the situation by trying to get the teen talking? Could they have just locked the streetcar doors, leaving him inside?
Police officers are guided by a use-of-force continuum that allows them to use various levels of force – from handcuffs and baton strikes to tasers and guns – depending on the situation and a subject’s response. Officers can only fire their weapons if they have a reasonable fear that their lives or that of another person are at risk.
“It’s a last-ditch effort, you have nothing else and this is the only way to resolve this life-threatening behaviour,” said Steve Summerville, a former Toronto policeman who trained recruits at the Ontario Police College. “You’ve got no other choice or consequence.”
Mr. Summerville, who has been certified as an expert witness in use-of-force cases, said there are too many unknowns about the case for a casual observer to be able to judge whether the officer who killed Mr. Yatim acted appropriately. The Special Investigations Unit is probing the shooting.
Depending on the circumstances, police officers are trained to try to de-escalate crisis situations by verbally engaging disturbed people. Such an approach “probably would have been very fruitful” in this case, Mr. McLean said.
“A policeman’s words and the way he speaks are his greatest tool, his greatest asset,” he said.
He suggested the following approach as an example: “You say something like, ‘Whoa, buddy, what’s the problem here? What’s wrong? Did you lose your job? Did you get kicked out? Did you lose your girlfriend? You know, talk to me. This is silly. We don’t need to do this. Hey, lookit, just settle down. Sit down at the edge of the car there for a second or on the seat and let me talk to you.’”