Why police services need to reconsider their militaristic approach to community safety

In his book, "Excessive Force: Toronto's Fight to Reform City Policing," former Toronto Police Services Board chair Alok Mukherjee argues that police forces need a culture change
By TVO Current Affairs - Published on May 7, 2018
Protests outside Toronto police headquarters following the shooting of Sammy Yatim in the summer of 2013. (Chris Young/CP)

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The corner of Dundas Street West and Bellwoods Avenue is defiant in its working-class status. The pavement is cracked. Wrought-iron railings stand guard in front of narrow but sturdy brick homes. Graffiti covers the walls of the buildings. The corner shakes as the overcrowded 505 streetcar trundles along its track. Here you can buy lottery tickets and international phone cards at Pacho’s Convenience or drop in at Victoria’s Wellness Spa and Rehabilitation Centre, which promises the “synergy of mind, body and soul.” What you can’t find is any sign of that July night in 2013 when a young man named Sammy Yatim lay dying on the platform near the open front doors of the 505.

cover of the book Excessive Force showing riot police during protests in Toronto at the 2010 G20 summit

Yet a year before the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, roiled the continent and three years before the bleak American summer of police killings of Blacks, that night might have been the Canadian tipping point, when relentless demand for change in police culture and behaviour could no longer be ignored. There was the crack of nine shots — nine hollow-point bullets from a Glock that echoed through a neighbourhood and shook the city from its midsummer torpor.

While no sign of Yatim’s death remains there, the video footage endures. And because of that video taken by a citizen, what transpired that night could not be hidden from the public. I remember sitting in stunned silence as I watched the scene on my computer screen. Like so many others in the city that night, I had been following live reports of the event. The video graphically showed us what had happened. Chief Blair came into my office at police headquarters the next morning. For a moment, we sat in silence. Then he asked, “Did you see it?”

“Yes, I did,” I told him. We were both numb and were having trouble believing what we had seen. We talked, not as police board chair and police chief, but as human beings, as parents, as Torontonians who wanted our city to be a safe place, especially for our young people. We were among hundreds of thousands who had seen what looked like the deliberate killing of one human being by another — on a street we knew well, by someone who worked for us. I told Blair the killing looked cold-blooded.

The brief footage on YouTube is both riveting and chilling. A streetcar stands still on a dark summer evening. The vehicle looks empty, with its lights on and doors open. It stands in the middle of a Toronto street. One solitary individual, a young man, can be seen standing at the top of the front steps. Scores of people are milling about on the sidewalk; scores of police officers are keeping them at bay. Two officers stand on either side of the front doors. Voices can be heard, but it is not clear who is saying what.

Later we would learn that Constable James Forcillo, a Toronto cop for six years, encountering a clearly troubled 18-year-old immigrant from Syria brandishing a knife, barked commands that were dismissed. Several more commands to drop the knife came from Forcillo but were met with silence. Forcillo’s partner, 24-year veteran Iris Fleckeisen, tried to verbally engage Yatim but got no response. Still, there was no apparent sign of crisis or urgency. There was no physical interaction between the person in the streetcar and the police officers. Two officers stood on either side of the streetcar door and all of the passengers had been evacuated. The door to the streetcar could be closed from the outside, the crisis contained. Fleckeisen had holstered her weapon, although she would later testify that that was so she could call for a Taser, not because Yatim represented no danger.

Forcillo would testify that he chose not to try to talk Yatim down in order to defuse the situation. If Yatim would not comply with orders when a gun was trained on him, why would he respond if Forcillo offered him a glass of water? the officer reasoned. As Yatim took a step backward on the 505 car, Forcillo issued what proved to be the final warning: “If you take one step closer, I will shoot you. I’m telling you right now.” Suddenly, a sound like something popping pierced the night. It was followed in rapid succession by a few more. The person inside the streetcar fell to the ground. There was a brief quiet period lasting six seconds, followed by more of the same popping sound. The whole scene lasted less than a minute. Within four days, half a million viewers had seen the video.

We know what happened that night. But it is vital that we come to grips with why it happened and what it says about police use of lethal force. At the time, we didn’t know why Forcillo had killed Yatim. We didn’t know what Yatim was doing in the hours prior to his death on the streetcar. However, with the video in circulation, we could anticipate a strong public reaction. We didn’t have to wait long.

There had been strong public outcries before when people suffering from mental-health crises had died at the hands of Toronto police. For the most part, outrage over previous highly publicized deaths such as those of Edmond Yu, Lester Donaldson, Otto Vass, and Jeffrey Reodica had come from the media and from community-based anti-racism and mental-health organizations. It had taken the form of mental-health-care providers and mental-health consumers’/survivors’ advocacy groups demanding to participate at inquests and making editorial comments and deputations to the police services board. This time, the public reaction was intense, immediate, and broad based. Clearly, the video evidence available to the public had humanized the killing like none before. The death had been inscribed indelibly in the public mind, and as more details emerged from tireless media digging, outrage grew. People had had enough.

That outrage eclipsed other concerns about police action that night. Rules had been broken. No one was in charge. A sergeant, Dan Pravica, Tasered Yatim as he lay dying, an action that is likely unprecedented. It is alleged that spent bullets were kicked out of the way by officers, which would have hampered any investigation. No member of the police service is allowed to touch or disturb the scene of a shooting; they are to wait for the arrival of officers from the Special Investigations Unit — better known as the SIU. In this case, given that a man had been shot and presumably killed there, every police officer should have known there would be an SIU investigation. They knew the rules: you don’t disturb the scene.

There were many officers present as the scene unfolded. The video shows four officers standing in a line facing the streetcar. Forcillo was one of them. Two officers stood on either side of the door. There were officers keeping the crowd at bay, as well as managing the crowd on bicycles. Things appeared calm. It is standard police practice that, in the absence of a sergeant, the most senior officer is to take charge at the scene. It appeared to me from the video that no one was in charge and that Forcillo had acted alone. There was no sign of a coordinated strategy, no tactical plan, no leadership. A sergeant arrived after the shooting had already taken place.

This had been an issue in the February 2012 killing of Michael Eligon, a disturbed young man armed with scissors. There had been a phalanx of at least eight officers facing Eligon, who was taunting them, before an officer shot him dead. Supposedly they had been backing off, but two or three officers were backed up against a truck and could move no farther. Constable Louie Cerqua said he feared for his life when he shot Eligon three times, killing him. But again the question was who was in charge. If no one is in charge, ultimately no one is held accountable.

In the Yatim case, the streetcar was empty (although Forcillo testified he didn’t know if there were people hiding on board). Everyone had left, even the driver. Yatim was alone. There was no sign that he was making any move to jump off the streetcar to attack anyone. There was a considerable distance between him and the officers. Being that there were two officers on either side of the door, why couldn’t they have closed the door and contained him, and then brought in a negotiator, a psychologist? The streetcar doors could have been closed from the outside using a button on the side meant for that purpose.


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Public protests of the Sammy Yatim killing culminated on August 13 with a rally outside police headquarters in which hundreds of people participated. Yatim’s family spoke passionately at the rally. It was the day the police board was holding its monthly meeting — our first public meeting since the killing. We invited the family to the meeting, and on behalf of the board, I stated that we “share the pain of the Yatim family” and wanted to “express our condolences over the tragic death of a young person.” To my knowledge, this was the first time the police board had publicly commented on an event of this kind. Chief Blair took the family into his office for a private meeting. Although he declined to state in public what was said at this meeting, he made sure the media knew the meeting had happened.

For its part, the board understood that it could not remain a silent bystander — it could not claim that it had no role in operational matters or that it could not comment while various investigations were taking place. Almost immediately after we learned about Yatim’s death, the board began to give directions to the police chief and to make its expectations clear.

As more information became available, it turned out that Forcillo had fired the additional shots because Yatim, already wounded and lying on the floor of the streetcar, still had a knife in his hand and was still alive. If the officers feared for their safety, certainly the firing of the extra shots should have alleviated their fear. But that wasn’t all. Pravica, who had subsequently joined the group of constables, had discharged his Taser at Yatim — after he had taken eight of the nine bullets fired by ForcilloPravica would testify he was initially unaware that Yatim had been shot.

Then there was the troubling scattering of the gun shells. Video from the CCTV cameras inside the streetcar, which is posted on YouTube, shows much of this activity on the part of the police officers at the scene. But the SIU designated only one officer, Forcillo, as the subject of its investigation and excluded all others. Based on this narrow investigation, the SIU held only Forcillo responsible for Yatim’s death and charged him.

In the course of the day-after conversations in my office, I expressed my concern that this shooting would deepen the public’s negative view of how police deal with mental-health crises, coming as it did while the joint inquest into the highly publicized deaths of three individuals — Reyal Jardine-Douglas, Sylvia Klibingaitis, and Eligon — better known as the J-K-E inquest, was ongoing. Coincidentally, edged weapons (that is, knives and scissors) were involved in those three deaths as well. I was also afraid the shooting might destroy the mental-health subcommittee that the board had established to engage mental-health consumers, survivors, service providers, advocates, and the police service to improve and strengthen the way in which our officers handle people in mental-health crisis. Our goal had been to restore the community’s confidence in us and enable our officers to resolve these crises peacefully.

Step one in the service’s damage control, then, was to insist that mental health had not played any role in the shooting of Yatim. In response to my loud questioning of their insistence, senior officials assured me there were no police records of prior contact with Yatim related to mental-health issues. Further, they claimed the police officers responding to the incident on the streetcar could not have known that they would be dealing with someone who was having a mental-health crisis. They encountered a young man travelling on the streetcar who had been walking around inside the vehicle exposing himself and at some point began brandishing a knife he had taken out of his pocket.

I do not expect officers to be clinical psychologists, but they can be expected to take stock of a situation. I was completely taken aback by the claim that officers could not have known that this was a mental-health-related situation. Surely, they could tell that Yatim’s behaviour was very much that of an emotionally disturbed person. I argued that common sense would have told them that. At that point, this line of explanation stopped.

The next step in damage control was a decision that the police chief would initiate an external, arm’s-length review of the shooting.

This was a clear indication of the impact of the public outcry that had arisen from the killing of Yatim. Being a good tactician, Blair had found a way to respond to this outcry that had some big advantages for him — it was his review, overseen by his delegate, conducted away from the public gaze. It would not be a wide-open public inquiry. At the same time, it would be independent, removed from him. And for that reason, it would take its own time, for which he could not be blamed, while avoiding constant public questioning.

Blair was now a staunch defender of the actions, or lack thereof, of his officers. He said that Pravica had done exactly the right thing in Tasering Yatim, who was still alive and holding the knife. According to Blair, Pravica had followed correct procedure and training. And so, when the results of the investigation by the police service’s internal professional standards unit came to the board as a confidential report, everyone was found to have acted in compliance with procedures and training — and cleared. With the questions about officer conduct neatly and confidentially dispensed with, Justice Iacobucci’s report and Forcillo’s trial became the subjects of discussion. No one else was held accountable, and little had changed in the police service in terms of the use of force. Wagons were circled and crisis management became the driving goal.

This is part of the police culture I spent 10 years battling. Both the police association and senior leadership constantly send out a message to officers: “We’ve got your back.” This deeply entrenched culture proved to be the biggest enemy I would face over my decade as chair of the Toronto Police Services Board. There is a very elaborate, expensive, and busy machinery to deal with the conduct of individual police officers and supposedly hold them accountable for their actions. Yet when I think about the meagre results this machinery produced, I find myself asking whether its real purpose is symbolic rather than substantive.​

Forcillo testified at his trial that he shot Yatim because he feared for his safety. He was convicted, but not for the first set of bullets that he aimed at Yatim. The jury found Forcillo was justified in firing the first three shots at Yatim. He was convicted for firing the subsequent six. Had he stopped at three, he would not have been convicted. Officer safety now appears to have taken precedence over public safety.

Data does not support this perception of constant danger. In fact, today policing is relatively safe compared to many other occupations. Policing in Canada and elsewhere has evolved significantly from its early days — so much so that in Ontario, government policy requires municipalities to develop a community safety and well-being plan, of which policing is one component. Within this broader framework, policing is not confined to the protection of person and property in a narrow sense; it is no longer limited to catching the violent criminal. Approximately two-thirds of police officers’ work deals with helping people in crisis, domestic violence, sexual assault, assisting the elderly, keeping streets safe, school safety, cybercrime, and so on.

Responding to what constitutes violent crime in the conventional sense makes up less than 30 per cent of police work. As Justice Iacobucci said in his report, police officers are social workers. It is conceivable that a large segment of a police force will not need to draw a gun — ever. And yet, by law, we train every police officer to shoot to kill. This constitutes the largest component of the training provided to new officers. In many forces in Canada, every year each police officer from constable to chief is required to re-certify in use of force. There is no comparable emphasis on other policing skills.

What is needed is a serious examination of the model of using a uniformed police officer equipped with an arsenal of force options to deal with the policing needs of a community. We also need to question why every police officer is equipped with lethal force. What is needed is a consideration of the consequences of taking a militaristic approach to community safety, one that is based on maintaining and promoting the perception that every police officer is at mortal risk each of his or her days on the job.

Excerpted from Chapter 4, "The Boy on the Streetcar,” from Excessive Force: Toronto’s Fight to Reform City Policing, by Alok Mukherjee with Tim Harper. © 2018. Published by Douglas & McIntyre. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

Watch The Agenda tonight at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. for a feature interview with Alok Mukherjee, or stream it on Twitter or Facebook.

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