The second-degree murder charge filed against a Toronto police officer for killing a knife-wielding 18-year-old man on a streetcar last month is a watershed for the city, and the country. It's the moment that a civilian investigative agency refused to accept the police view that a person holding a knife, scissors or other slashing or stabbing instrument within 20 feet always poses a grievous or mortal risk, and should be stopped by lethal force. The fatal shooting of Sammy Yatim deserves just such an extraordinary response.
We say that with great reluctance, because the police have a difficult job to do and do it in the name of the wider community. When they make decisions, even mistaken ones, in fluid situations of grave danger, they do not deserve to be facing an automatic life penalty, with no chance of parole for a minimum of 10 years – the penalty for second-degree murder.
Why is the shooting of Mr. Yatim different? Because after the first three bullets, Mr. Yatim was knocked to the floor of the streetcar. There was then a five-second pause before the next six shots were fired. It is difficult to accept that a man on the ground, even one still clutching a knife after being shot three times, poses a mortal danger to officers standing at some distance away.
The 20-foot threshold is based on the belief that the distance can be covered very quickly, before a gun can be raised and fired accurately. But in the scene captured imperfectly on video taken by bystanders and a store security camera, the 20-foot threshold argument is dubious. The police had options. They were not, at that point, in a kill-or-be-killed situation, in the apparent view of the Special Investigations Unit, which operates at arm's length from the provincial Attorney General's Ministry and which has only once before laid a murder charge against an officer, in a 2010 case. (That charge was rejected by a judge at a preliminary hearing, who said the officer's gun had gone off accidentally. The Crown is appealing.) Time was on their side. They, not the man on the ground, had the capacity to control the situation.
The reasonableness of Constable Forcillo's perception of serious risk justifying the use of lethal force will be at the heart of his day in court. Whether the officer felt threatened is not enough. His perception had to be objectively reasonable. That is what the law on use of force in Canada says. The use of lethal force had to be necessary.
Many people watching the somewhat sketchy videotape evidence have a hard time believing it is necessary to shoot a man with a knife while he is on the floor of a streetcar, having been shot.