Toronto's police chief has 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 a knife-wielding teenager alone on a city streetcar.
Chief Bill 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. "You can't police the city without the public's consent," he said Monday afternoon.
The announcement came more than two weeks after the shooting death of Sammy Yatim, an 18-year-old who was alone and wielding a three-inch blade on a streetcar when an officer shot at him nine times; once wounded, he was tasered. It also came the day before a Police Services Board meeting, which on Tuesday is slated to attract a protest march organized by Mr. Yatim's family.
The family said in a statement they "feel that the involvement of Justice Dennis O'Connor will help provide some assurance of transparency and commitment to create improved protocols." But a high-profile civil rights lawyer said the announcement may be politically motivated and that the chief should focus on implementing existing recommendations.
"While I have the greatest of respect for Justice O'Connor and how important and fair a man he is, I have a great deal of difficulty taking the Toronto Police Service seriously on this issue," said Julian Falconer, the lawyer who represented the family of Edmond Yu, a paranoid schizophrenic shot to death on a city bus after wielding a hammer in 1997. He also represented the family of Lester Donaldson, another paranoid schizophrenic, who was fatally shot in his apartment in 1988 after threatening police with a knife.
Mr. Falconer said one recommendation borne from these two cases was the creation of 24/7 mobile crisis teams consisting of mental-health practitioners and police officers. Although the Toronto Police Service introduced the teams following the Yu inquest, the teams don't operate around the clock – they work until 9 p.m. at the latest – and don't respond to armed people. In Mr. Yatim's case, it was around midnight and he was carrying a knife.
Police spokesman Mark Pugash said the ability to have around-the-clock teams is contingent on the limited resources at the disposal of hospitals and law enforcement. "The idea that you can simply snap your fingers and have them 24/7 and all over the city is simply unrealistic," he said.
The latest Police Services review is one of several probes into the Yatim shooting, including by the Special Investigations Unit and Ontario's ombudsman. Despite Chief Blair's assurances that the force will communicate, where relevant, with the ombudsman, Mr. Falconer said he's concerned Mr. O'Connor's appointment could be used as an excuse to avoid collaboration.
"I fear that you're going to see the same lack of co-operation by the Toronto Police Service in respect to this ombudsman's exercise as we saw last time with G20," Mr. Falconer said, referring to the ombudsman's investigation into security during the June, 2010, summit. "I fear [Chief Blair] is going to erect the existence of asking Justice O'Connor to do an inquiry as a rationale for not co-operating."
Mr. O'Connor, who served as Ontario's associate chief justice and sat on the provincial court of appeal from 1998 until 2012, headed two prominent inquiries – one into Ontario's Walkerton water tragedy and the other into the rendition of Maher Arar. He started his work Monday, Mr. Pugash said, and could possibly submit his report by the end of this year.