Anger, sorrow, bewilderment. The killing of Sammy Yatim has stirred up a storm of emotions. This was a deeply disturbing event for the city, still being discussed at breakfast tables and coffee shops a week after the event.
Alok Mukherjee, chair of the police services board, which oversees the force, says that in nearly a decade of sitting on the board, he has never seen anything like it. “It is amazing how one incident can cause such anxiety in the public, even though it is objectively speaking an exceptional incident,” he says.
One reason is the power of video. We have had police shootings like this before – far too many of them – but we can see this one with our own eyes. The images are riveting and they linger in the mind. One angle shows the youth disappear from sight as the first shots ring out, another shows him crumpling to the floor of the streetcar, and yet another shows a policeman pumping his chest as he lies on an ambulance gurney.
Another reason is the age of the victim. Photographs of Mr. Yatim shown a gangly, fresh-faced kid. Lying in a casket at his funeral on Thursday, his mother stroking his face and holding his hand, he still looked like the boy on his way to manhood that he was, with dark eyebrows and a shock of curly hair. As a placard at the site of his death puts it simply: “He was 18.”
Just before the funeral service, a middle-aged woman broke down in front of the casket, “I’m not the same religion, I’m not from his country, but I have a son like him – it’s not fair,” she sobbed. Many parents of teenaged boys were feeling the same way: it might have been our son.
How could this have happened? More to the point, how could it have happened in this city – safe, law-abiding Toronto, with its well-equipped, well-trained police force?
When I went by the spot on Dundas Street West where streetcar 4058 came to a halt last weekend, people were still stopping to look at the small curbside shrine to Mr. Yatim, with its candles, flowers and placards. “Personally, I think there was no reason for the nine shots,” said Cossi Dady, 28, an IT support worker. “The fact that the police didn’t try to deescalate the situation and just pulled the trigger is something that is unacceptable.”
Mikey Pamaputera, 29, a personal trainer, said he could not understand why the police, with all their numbers and firepower, could not have resolved the situation another way.
“There is 20 of you, there is one of him. I don’t know, seriously. There is an old saying, you never bring a knife to a gunfight. The guy had a knife in a gunfight.”
Everyone wants to know why the crisis on the Dundas car had to end this way. Yet – and this is encouraging – there hasn’t been the kind of generalized backlash against police that we have seen after police shootings elsewhere. Despite an attempt by activists to hijack the Yatim shooting for their own purposes – a flyer for one group said “Killer cops off our streets” – the Yatim family issued a dignified statement making clear that they do not blame all police for the tragedy.
There is, thankfully, no evidence of racial bias here, or even of simple “police brutality.” Though we won’t know for sure till investigators report, this seems more likely to have been the result of panic and confusion than of prejudice or brutishness.
Even many of those who question how the police reacted say that they sympathize with the police officer who fired the shots – and is now said to be going through agonies because of it. “Sometimes I think we have to be understanding of the fact that (police) are going to be in dangerous situations and maybe they react in a way we think is unfortunate,” said Leah Hillier, 27, a doctor, who was passing Mr. Yatim's shrine on Dundas.
In place of backlash, what we are seeing in Toronto is a broad determination to find out exactly what happened, why it happened and how it can be prevented from happening again. In her eulogy at the funeral, Mr. Yatim’s 17-year-old sister Sarah – composed, steady, showing maturity beyond her years – urged mourners to turn their anger into something constructive. “He was shot to death,” she said of her brother. “He wasn’t the first to die this way but hopefully he will be the last. If Sammy was here, he would want us all to think wisely. We are all full of anger, and just because we are mad, it doesn’t mean we wish the same thing upon the man who killed my brother.
“So, please everybody, let’s be strong. Pull yourself together. Stop with the tears and get started with action that would make Sammy proud.”
That could serve as a call to the whole city.