The recent fatal shooting of Sammy Yatim (18) by a Toronto Police Officer has proven to be a highly controversial incident. The tragic event was captured on cell phone video and has now gone viral. Members of the viewing public have expressed outrage and have participated in several emotionally charged rallies for Justice.
The question at the center of the maelstrom is, “Was the shooting justified?”
Yatim was a passenger on a street car who exposed himself, brandished a knife and chased off the passengers and driver. When Police arrived he presented himself as an armed, non-compliant, verbally aggressive subject. (He can be clearly heard in the video taunting a Police Officer stating, “You’re a fucking pussy.”)
A deadly force threat requires three (3) specific elements, a) Weapon, b) Intent and c) Delivery System – ie: the subject must be capable of using the weapon against someone. In this case all three elements exist during the first phase of the confrontation; a) Yatim is armed with an edged weapon capable of causing death or grievous bodily harm, b) he demonstrates the requisite intent with his verbal non-compliance and by waving the weapon around and c) he had a delivery system in that he was in close enough proximity to the officers to attack them with the knife.
Universally accepted use of force protocols dictate that an appropriate response to such a threat is deadly force. Some use of force experts may suggest the use of lower force options by front line prime response Police Officers facing a deadly weapon threat is ill-advised and inappropriate.
The Criminal Code of Canada dictates Police Officers are justified in using deadly force when they believe on “reasonable grounds” that they, or any person under their protection, is in danger of suffering death or grievous bodily harm.
In this case, Yatim clearly presented himself as someone who had the potential to cause death or grievous bodily harm to the Police Officers at the scene and to members of the Public if he had been permitted to leave the street car. His weapon, verbal non-compliance and verbal aggression elevated the risk he posed to the Police and members of the Public.
Any Police Officer standing in the shoes of the contact officer would have properly come to the conclusion the threat had to be contained on the street car. That is, if the subject made a move to exit the bus, deadly force would have to be used to stop him.
Permitting an armed, aggressive subject the freedom to exit the street car was simply not an option. The potential negative ramifications of doing so could have been immense. The contact officer had the responsibility to contain the threat.
As the first shots rang out, Yatim could clearly been seen moving towards the front of the bus near the front exit doors. After the first burst of three (3) shots almost six seconds elapse before a further six (6) shots are fired after which time Police continued to yell to Yatim to drop the knife. A short time later a taser is discharged and runs for a full five (5) second cycle.
Yatim was subsequently conveyed to Hospital and was pronounced deceased.
The shooting raises many questions.
As a former tactical team member and Supervisor responsible for investigating Police Officer Involved Shooting Incidents I will weigh in on some of the obvious questions and base opinions strictly on experience and a review of the video evidence.
Q Was the shooting justified?
- A In order to come to an appropriate conclusion a detailed interview of the contact officer is required. His mindset, interpretation and articulation of the threat are essential elements required to arrive at any conclusion regarding his use of deadly force. The shooters evidence would have to be heavily scrutinized and measured against other investigative findings to conduct a proper assessment.
Q If the initial burst of three (3) shots were justified, was the second burst of six (6) shots justified?
- If the initial three (3) shot burst were deemed to be justified, that justification doesn’t automatically extend to the subsequent six (6) shots that were fired. The justification for the additional shots will also be scrutinized and must meet the same criteria used to assess the initial shots fired. Once again, the Officers mindset, interpretation and articulation of the threat will be essential elements required to arrive at any conclusion regarding the secondary use of deadly force.
- I expect questions regarding whether or not a “delivery system” existed after the first three shots were fired will be a live issue in this investigation.
Q) Why was the taser discharged?
- It seems logical that the taser was discharged to further incapacitate Yatim to facilitate a safe approach. People shot by the Police do not simply drop dead, a popular misconception popularized by Hollywood movies. It’s quite possible that Yatim continued to brandish the weapon and move about when the Police approached him. Despite being shot multiple times, until disarmed, Yatim would have still been perceived to be a threat to the Officers.
Q) Was the use of the taser justified?
- If Yatim remained in possession of the knife the use of the taser could be justified. Ultimately, the officer who discharged the taser will have to provide sufficient explanation to justify this use of force.
Q) Should the Police have used less than lethal force options?
- When faced with a deadly threat, Police Officers are justified in responding with lethal force and are not required to attempt to use less than lethal force options. Infact, in some cases, attempting to use less than lethal force options could be ill-advised and highly dangerous. When facing a deadly threat, the use of these less than lethal options should only be used in conjunction with deadly force options and only when circumstances dictate their safe use. Professional Police Officers trained in the use of force should be able to articulate and justify their use of force and why less lethal options were considered to be either inappropriate or ineffective.
Q) Would the deployment of a trained tactical team resulted in a different outcome?
- The answer to this question is not relevant to the contact Officer who faced the deadly encounter. The Officer was forced to deal with the threat until such time as a Tactical Team arrived on scene. In this case, that didn’t happen. The availability of the Tactical Team may be a question examined during the SIU or Police Investigations, or during an inquest or civil litigation.
Q) Was Yatim under the influence of drugs or alcohol?
- Information in media reports suggest Yatim was a marihuana user. Marihuana is not known to be a drug that induces violence in its users. No information exists that indicates Yatim was under the influence of alcohol or illicit narcotics. The results of an autopsy will provide clarity regarding this issue.
Q) Was Yatim suffering from Mental Health issues?
- There is no information available regarding mental health issues. Interviews with family members, friends and medical practitioners may shed light on this question.
- Yatim’s defiance, verbal aggression and taunts to armed Police Officers are suggestive of someone who may be experiencing suicidal thoughts. “Suicide by Cop” or victim precipitated homicide, is a well documented method employed by people who are bent on self-destruction but lack the courage to take their own life. A study completed by Sgt Rick Parent of the Delta Police Department found that 50% of Police involved shootings are victim precipitated events. (Source: Wikipedia – Suicide by Cop)
According to Toronto Police Association President Mike McCormack, the officer who fired the shots was a six-year veteran of the Police Service. McCormack indicated the Officer was “devastated” by the incident and cautioned against rushing to judgement before the investigation is complete. McCormack is quoted in the Globe & Mail as stating, “We have to remember that the video provides just a segment of the bigger picture here, I don’t think it’s too helpful to judge this based on what might be one slice of a bigger picture.”
The investigation into the Police Involved shooting death of Sammy Yatim needs to run its course before any conclusions are made. The shooter and more than twenty-two (22) Police Officer witnesses will be interviewed by the Special Investigations Unit before their investigation will be concluded. An investigation that will include civilian witness interviews and detailed video analysis.
The goal of the investigation will be to determine if the perceptions, actions and force used by the Officer in question were reasonable given the threat he faced.
I for one, will not rush to judgement.