Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair, facing a crisis of public confidence after an officer killed a knife-wielding teenager on an empty streetcar, has suspended the officer who fired the fatal shots and said getting to the bottom of why the trigger was pulled nine times is his “highest priority.”
The urgency of the situation was underscored by a fervent public protest, mounting questions about the police’s use of force, and a hastily organized press conference in which Chief Blair read a brief but candid statement and took no questions.
It is highly unusual for a chief to address the media while a police shooting is under scrutiny by the province’s Special Investigations Unit, as this case is. But videos of the incident, which have gone viral, and the public outcry they have elicited have forced the chief to rethink traditional strategy.
“I am aware of the very serious concerns that the public has. I know that people are seeking answers as to what occurred, why it happened and if anything could have been done to prevent the tragic death of this young man,” Chief Blair told reporters Monday. “I am also seeking the answers to these important questions. I want to assure all of the citizens of Toronto of our unwavering commitment to get the answers they seek.”
He said his force will “co-operate fully” with the SIU’s investigation and that he will launch a separate probe, as required by law, to determine if police protocol was followed.
Sammy Yatim, an 18-year-old Syrian immigrant who friends and family say was preparing to start college in the fall, died early Saturday after being shot several times in the chest while standing in an empty streetcar downtown surrounded by police outside. He was also tasered, after the shooting. Witnesses said Mr. Yatim had brandished a knife and exposed himself before ordering passengers and the driver off the tram.
A vigil for Mr. Yatim in downtown Toronto on Monday drew hundreds of people, many of whom chanted for “justice” and taunted police officers securing the perimeter. Some hoisted signs that read, “Shame!”
“There’s no reason for this guy to be dead. There’s no reason. Police – they are professional, they are trained. They can’t handle a two-inch knife? How they’re gonna handle something else?” asked Joseph Nazar, a friend of Mr. Yatim’s family. “They are bullet-proofed. How a two-inch knife can harm anyone?”
Mr. Nazar described grief-stricken relatives collapsing inside the Yatim family’s two-storey, white house with vinyl siding near Sheppard Avenue and the Don Valley Parkway. He said the family is making funeral arrangements and talking to lawyers to determine their next steps.
Mr. Yatim died of multiple gunshot wounds to the upper torso, according to the SIU, a civilian agency that probes police incidents involving death, injury or sexual assault. The SIU has identified one “subject officer,” or shooter, and 22 witness officers.
Toronto Police spokesman Mark Pugash confirmed Monday that the officer had been suspended with pay, but would not release his name and rank.
The videos of the shootings – there are at least three that have become widely viewed online – have changed the landscape for the Toronto Police Service, which has been criticized for its use of force and perceived insensitivity to the mentally ill in at least 10 coroner’s inquests over the past two decades.
At the same time, the officers involved in all of those shootings were found to be justified. The inquests were based largely on recollections of officers and witnesses, rather than video footage.
Toronto Police Association president Mike McCormack characterized the suspension as unusual and said he would seek a rationale from the chief.
Mr. McCormack described the six-year veteran who pulled the trigger as “devastated” by the incident, and cautioned against passing judgment on him before the investigation is complete.
“We have to remember that the video provides just a segment of the bigger picture here,” Mr. McCormack said. “I don’t think it’s too helpful to judge this based on what might be one slice of a bigger picture.”
Toronto Police Board chair Alok Mukherjee said he was was stunned by what he saw in the videos, which now have more than 100,000 views. “My first impression was one of total surprise and bewilderment with how quickly the shots came after the warning to ‘drop the knife’ and with how rapidly the shots were fired,” said the nine-year veteran of the board. “Other than some video footage from the G20, I cannot recall anything quite like this.”
Mr. Yatim did not have a history of mental illness, said Nathan, his friend and roommate, who did not want to give his last name.
“Something must have happened to set the kid off. He’s so mild-mannered,” he said.
Scot Wortley, a criminology professor at the University of Toronto, said the videos appear to be stoking public doubts and raising questions that police have yet to answer.
What was going through the officers’ minds before the shots were fired? Was Mr. Yatim a genuine threat to police armed with guns? Could the officers have de-escalated the situation rather than use deadly force? Why wasn’t the taser used first?
“From a police or law enforcement or legal perspective, police are justified in using deadly force when there is a reasonable fear that an individual will cause serious harm to the officers or a member of the public,” Mr. Wortley said. “The controversy that’s exploding in this case is around the questions of what constitutes reasonable.”
With reports from Adrian Morrow, Kaleigh Rogers, Caroline Alphonso, Joel Eastwood and Vidya Kauri