Against a soundtrack of street protesters openly jeering police, Chief Bill Blair met with Sammy Yatim’s family for the first time after one of his officers shot and killed the young man nearly three weeks ago.
The meeting took place the same day Toronto Police Services Board chair Alok Mukherjee called for an overhaul of police training and took steps to strengthen the civilian board’s oversight of the force – a clear sign that both chief and chair are taking a more active approach to the Yatim death than they have to previous police-involved shootings.
“We want to be able to prevent deaths,” Dr. Mukherjee said. “That means a cultural change in how we understand risk to be, how much of a focus we place on de-escalation and the use of alternatives to lethal force.”
In a prepared statement, Dr. Mukherjee said the Yatim shooting has prompted the board to take the unprecedented step of seeking independent legal status in a forthcoming judicial inquest into the deaths of three mentally ill people who were shot by police. Prior to the Yatim shooting, the board and Toronto police were jointly represented at inquests. But Dr. Mukherjee said that unresolved issues over accountability and discipline within the force behooves the board to take an independent approach this time around.
“The board decided to have its own legal standing in front of the inquest so it can more thoroughly probe those issues at this very important inquest,” he said, adding that the Police Services Act prevents the board and the chief from levying stiff penalties against officers such as suspensions without pay.
Constable James Forcillo, identified by the Special Investigations Unit as the officer who opened fire on Mr. Yatim, has been suspended with pay from the Toronto Police Service since the shooting happened. Nine gunshots and a taser can be heard on eyewitness videos of the shooting aboard a city streetcar. Mr. Yatim, 18, was holding a three-inch knife.
The chief largely endorsed Dr. Mukherjee’s statement, saying he has advocated for new rules around suspensions in the past.
Chief Blair refused to talk about his meeting with the Yatim family in his office, calling it private, but vowed to keep an open line of communication with them in the future.
“I think it was appropriate to have them in my office and to have a conversation with them and we did that today,” he said. “We will continue to talk as they need to talk.”
On Monday, Chief Blair tapped a high-profile retired judge to review the service's tactics – including police use of force – amid sustained criticism over the July killing of the teenager.
Chief Blair called his decision to appoint Dennis O’Connor to spearhead the mandated internal review “extraordinary” – emphasizing, he said, his desire to not only improve police practices when dealing with emotionally disturbed people but to bolster the public’s trust.
That public faith remains in question, as made clear by around 500 demonstrators who marched from Yonge-Dundas Square to police headquarters on College Street, demanding “justice for Sammy.”
While some activists sang and made speeches, about 15 protesters actively goaded police officers on the sidelines by jeering and swearing at them – behaviour that the Yatim family had requested be avoided.
“I'm very sorry if the family is offended by this, but Sammy’s not the only one,” said protester Gary Wassaykeesic. “There have been lots of people who have been shot.”