It might seem ill-mannered to bring up the case of Sammy Yatim in the wake of the heroic actions of a Toronto police officer on Monday, but bear with us.
Mr. Yatim was the troubled 18-year-old boy who pulled a knife out on a Toronto streetcar in 2013 and chased the passengers to the street. Clearly in crisis, alone in the car and not an immediate threat to anyone, he was shot nine times by a Toronto police officer and then tasered.
The shooting was captured on cellphone videos, and the public was outraged. It looked like an excessive use of lethal force, which indeed it was. The officer was convicted of attempted murder (for the six shots he fired after Mr. Yatim was badly wounded and no longer even remotely a threat). The police force was subsequently pressured into ordering a review of its use of lethal force during encounters with people in crisis, which was carried out by former Supreme Court judge Frank Iacobucci.
Fast forward to Monday, when a Toronto officer displayed incredible bravery, poise and competence as he arrested the man suspected of running down and killing 10 people on Yonge Street.
Once again, there is citizen video. The officer never fires a shot. He instead de-escalates his brief encounter with the suspect, first by turning off his wailing patrol-car siren so he can talk to him.
The suspect urges the officer to kill him and attempts to convince him that the black object he is holding is some kind of weapon. The officer is wary but insistent. He warns the suspect he will shoot if necessary. He even allows the suspect to advance toward him – an action that in some circumstances would have invited a bullet to the midsection.
But this officer remains calm. Apparently convinced that the suspect is not armed, he switches tactics. He pulls out his baton and advances forcefully toward the man. It’s over at that moment. The suspect falls to his knees with his hands in the air. A few seconds later, he is lying face-down, his wrists cuffed behind his back.
It is brilliant policing, exactly the opposite of what happened in the case of Sammy Yatim.
There is so much to admire in the officer’s actions. But the most remarkable thing about it is that the officer, Const. Ken Lam, ignores the ironclad rule of policing that says his personal safety overrides all other considerations.
This has long been the doctrine of police departments and the bodies that oversee them, courts included. Police who shoot a suspect who is unarmed, or who is armed but is not an immediate threat, are almost always exonerated on the grounds that they are permitted to fire their weapons if at any moment they fear for their safety.
The absolutism of this view is not shared by the public, however. Most people do not accept that the right of a police officer to carry a gun comes with the right to use it with impunity based solely on a subjective assessment of threat, especially when a suspect is clearly disturbed.
People expect more. The goal, as Mr. Iacobucci put it in his report in 2014, should be “zero deaths when police interact with the public.”
It is obvious that police sometimes have no choice but to use their weapons. Had the suspect on Monday been holding what was clearly a deadly weapon when he advanced on the officer, no one would have questioned the use of lethal force had it been used in that instance.
But it’s clear from Monday’s incident that police in Toronto can be, and are being, better trained in the art and science of de-escalation, and to be patient and to think on the fly, and to not reflexively resort to lethal force first and answer questions later.
That’s excellent news. So is the fact that there is video of the arrest, because Torontonians can see that better training in action. This could go a long way toward resolving the anger and distrust caused by the Sammy Yatim case.
It could also raise the public’s expectations about police conduct. But we need to be wary of that. Let’s face it: The public rarely hears about cases where the police safely defuse a situation with a person in crisis. But the fact is the Toronto police alone face about 20,000 such encounters every year, to varying degrees of risk, according to Mr. Iacobucci’s report.
What occurred on Monday perhaps wasn’t so much exceptional as it was just another day on the job for police officers across this country. We should remember that.