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Const. James Forcillo arrives at court in Toronto on Monday, Jan. 25, 2016. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)
Const. James Forcillo arrives at court in Toronto on Monday, Jan. 25, 2016. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

James Forcillo found guilty of attempted murder of Sammy Yatim Add to ...

The police officer who fired nine shots at a Toronto teen aboard an empty streetcar in 2013 has been found guilty of attempted murder, a potential milestone in the continent-wide campaign for greater judicial scrutiny of police shootings.

Constable James Forcillo, who remains on bail pending sentencing, has been suspended from duty with pay while his lawyer, Peter Brauti, asks for the charges to be thrown out as what he called an abuse of process. The officer was acquitted of the more serious charge of second-degree murder in the death of Sammy Yatim, the 18-year-old who took eight bullets from Constable Forcillo’s service pistol after threatening passengers with a knife on the 505 Dundas streetcar in the city’s west end. The verdict came down early on Monday afternoon after more than five days of deliberations and a four-month trial.

Officer Forcillo 'shocked' by attempted murder verdict: Union (CP Video)

With dozens of officers in the courtroom for support, Constable Forcillo showed no emotion upon hearing the verdict. Toronto Police Association president Mike McCormack said the conviction is the first step “in a long journey” for Constable Forcillo, including an appeal of the verdict.

In the days after the July, 2013, shooting, bystanders uploaded video of the incident to YouTube, touching off protests across the city. It was among several cases that put officers’ use of force in the spotlight in Canada and in the United States, where police shootings kindled protests in the streets of Ferguson, Mo., Baltimore, New York and beyond.

In an afternoon press conference at police headquarters, Police Chief Mark Saunders repeatedly told reporters the Toronto Police Service has examined and refined how it uses deadly force, particularly when responding to people in mental health crises. He said he has added an extra day of police training devoted to “people in crisis” and introduced new, less lethal weapons, including the forthcoming sock gun, which fires soft shotgun rounds designed immobilize but not kill.

“The power police officers have comes with enormous responsibility to use it wisely,” he said. “In return, officers are entitled to the best training, supervision and equipment.”

The service, he said, is still implementing 84 recommendations from a review of its use-of-force policies that then-chief Bill Blair commissioned after the Yatim shooting.

Chief Saunders avoided commenting on the trial itself or Constable Forcillo’s culpability that night, referring to the case only as a “tragedy.”

Mr. Yatim’s mother said after the verdict that she wants a role in deciding on further changes to how officers deal with people experiencing breakdowns in mental health. “Sammy had his whole life ahead of him,” Sahar Bahadi said outside the downtown Toronto courthouse. “Because of what police did, we have lost him forever.”

On Monday, police appeared ready for a riot. Cruisers, both marked and unmarked, idled at every intersection surrounding the Ontario Superior courthouse on University Avenue. A surveillance truck from the force’s video services unit watched over the area outside the courthouse, its camera mast raised alongside those of satellite trucks from national and local news networks.

But the guilty verdict, and the minimum sentence of four years imprisonment it carries, seemed to defuse any potential for a larger-scale demonstration.

The police lenses captured only reporters, pedestrians and three lone protesters. “Jail the killer cops,” one yelled repeatedly. Tensions outside rose only momentarily, when Constable Forcillo and his wife left by a side door nearly four hours after the decision. Several news photographers were knocked over when a phalanx of about 10 police officers on bicycles attempted to clear a path for the couple as they walked to a waiting SUV.

Julian Falconer, lawyer for the Yatim family in an ongoing civil suit, summed up why the verdict placated many activists in the city and spurred optimism among reformers in the United States, where efforts to convict officers involved in shootings have been elusive.

“We are coming closer and closer to the day when police officers are treated like everyone else in terms of their accountability as a citizen in this country,” Mr. Falconer said. “For too long they have enjoyed close to an immunity for their actions. I think today signifies a sea change in that respect.”

Of course, experiences in the two countries are not analogous. Canadian police use deadly force far less often than their U.S. counterparts. And while U.S. forces and their unions have put up a fierce resistance to reform efforts, police here are trained in de-escalation techniques that did not appear to be used the night Mr. Yatim died, according to University of Toronto criminologist Scot Wortley.

“It’s a judgment call, and Forcillo did not consider his other options,” he said. “I don’t know if training is effective unless it goes with increased scrutiny and accountability.”

The way in which Toronto grapples with the outcome of the Yatim verdict will reverberate well beyond the city’s borders. “It’s been watched very closely” in jurisdictions across Canada and the United States, said Terry Coleman, a former Moose Jaw police chief who has four decades of policing experience, including 28 in Calgary.

Mr. Coleman said the result of the trial will be “an increasing emphasis on the training and education of police officers to take their time and think of whatever opportunities to use alternatives to force.” For instance, in the circumstances of the Yatim case, “you try and just ask him what his name is, to build some sort of connection and some basis for having an ongoing conversation. To try to defuse the situation, to calm it down.” He said he is aware of a Canadian police academy – he would not say which one – that has used the Yatim shooting in training sessions as an example of what not to do. “I know one college that’s been showing that video already.”

A total of seven officers have been charged with manslaughter in the deaths of civilians in Toronto in the past 40 years. None were convicted.

Shannon Kari is a freelance reporter

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Warning graphic content: Synchronized footage captures shooting of Sammy Yatim (The Globe and Mail)

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