He never wanted to kill anyone. With that assertion, the policeman on trial for killing a knife-wielding young man on a Toronto streetcar began testifying in his own defence in a downtown courtroom.
The 32-year-old husband and father of two young daughters was asked right off the bat whether he shot and killed Sammy Yatim. "That's correct, I did," he replied. Is that something he ever wanted to do? "Of course not. I never wanted to kill anyone."
The case is unusual in at least a couple of ways. Rarely does a Canadian cop face murder charges after a confrontation with an armed suspect. Rarely, if ever, is the whole episode recorded on video from multiple angles.
That is the challenge for the defence. The jury members have seen with their own eyes what happened that July night in 2013, when Mr. Yatim, high on drugs, suddenly pulled out a knife, exposed himself and forced terrified streetcar riders to spill out onto the road. They have also seen with their own eyes how Constable James Forcillo drew his revolver, shouted at Mr. Yatim to drop the knife then fired two volleys at the 18-year-old, the second one as Mr. Yatim lay on the floor of the streetcar, struck in the heart and his spine severed by bullets.
By the time Constable Forcillo fired, the streetcar was empty except for Mr. Yatim. Although he was defiant and non-compliant, refusing to drop his weapon, he did not appear, from what we see in the video, to pose an immediate threat to anyone's life.
Why, then, did Constable Forcillo pull the trigger?
He told the court that he fired the first volley because, "I believed Mr. Yatim, who was armed with a knife, was in the process of coming off the streetcar" to attack. He says he fired the second volley because he believed (the defence admits mistakenly) that "Mr. Yatim was in the process of getting off the streetcar to continue" his attack.
The videos cast doubt on both those conclusions. Mr. Yatim is not charging at police when Constable Forcillo fires. He is still on the streetcar, near the top of the steps. He is not getting off the streetcar when the second volley hits him. He is lying prone and helpless.
The defence is arguing that it was reasonable all the same for him to act the way he did. In his early testimony, his lawyer led him through the use-of-force training he got at police college and on the job. In one training video, two Barrie cops tell a harrowing tale of how they were stabbed and nearly killed by a ranting man who came at them unexpectedly with a knife. In another, a trainer explains that even a small person with an "edged weapon" can do terrible damage. Because a knife is silent and easy to use and easy to conceal, "at close range, a knife can be more dangerous than a gun," Constable Forcillo said. When confronting someone with a knife, police are trained to draw their gun, keep a distance and "watch his hands." And if they shoot, he said, they are trained to fire as often as necessary to stop that assailant.
At some point, he said, officers have to draw a "line in the sand." They are taught there is no such thing as an absolutely safe distance from a person with a knife.
Of course, they are also told that deadly force should be a last resort, used only when their safety or the safety of people nearby is at risk. And they are trained in the use of de-escalation techniques – talking the suspect down instead of taking him out.
One of the big questions in the Yatim case is why no one appears to have attempted this with the clearly disturbed Mr. Yatim – nobody, that is, except the streetcar driver, who spoke calmly with the youth, telling him things would be all right and saying he should sit down.
A use-of-force expert told the court earlier in Constable Forcillo's trial for second-degree murder and attempted murder that the officer used none of the usual techniques for reasoning with a suspect, such as asking his name, asking if he would like to call someone or telling him there were other ways out of the situation than violence. Nor did he try pepper spray or wait for an officer with a stun gun, the expert said.
To counteract that kind of testimony, the defence is trying to show that, far from being a hot-head, Constable Forcillo is an ordinary, compassionate officer who faced a tremendously stressful situation and reacted as he was trained to react. He told the court that, as a young man, he cared for his mother when doctors treated her for cancer and his father could not cope. Constable Forcillo was cool and increasingly confident as he testified on Wednesday, the picture of calm professionalism.
But the issue is not Constable Forcillo's character or background. It is not Mr. Yatim's either. The issue is how police deal with disturbed and threatening individuals. Despite all sorts of training in de-escalation, they are still not very good at it. Several cases in recent years show that. Only this week in Chicago, authorities released shocking video of a white police officer shooting down a 17-year-old black man in the street.
Whether or not Constable Forcillo is found guilty in the Yatim killing, police have to get better at trying other things before they shoot.