It’s almost a year since an 18-year-old boy, Sammy Yatim, was shot to death by a Toronto police officer. He was alone in a streetcar. With a 3” knife. I guess they thought that heavy, iron streetcar couldn’t contain him.
That same week in Montreal, police in a 20-hour ‘standoff’ finally convinced a fellow to hand himself over – unshot, undead! What alternative method did they use? Talk.
So what do we know about Sammy? We know he was jobless, homeless, 18, in conflict with his father over using marijuana. We know he was a recent arrival from Syria. Any one of these factors could have been enough stress to produce a psychotic breakdown in a boy his age. Witnesses say he had a knife in one hand, and his penis in the other, with a “not here” look in his eyes. All told, sounds like an obvious ‘psychotic episode’. Family members say he had no history of mental illness. But distress more often arises around that age. Which is why we more often see a psychotic breakdown in young people who’ve gone away to university for example, leaving home for the first time and beginning more intimidating academic life, minus their usual supports.
He was a distressed boy, expected to solve his own problems – an unfair expectation at the best of times. Shelter and a hug would have done wonders. From what we know about mental illness, Sammy could easily have been just entering a state of psychosis, brought on by the stress he was feeling. He certainly had more than enough to cope with.
On the Toronto Police Service website, on “Mental Health Issues”, we find what appears to be ‘advice’ on how to handle such situations, with links to further information. It appears optional. And the advice conflicts with comments of a police trainer during one past inquest. “You shoot until the threat is gone,” he said and “there is no magic-bullet alternative to firearms” ** Pretty simplistic.
Constable James Forcillo was charged with second degree murder, and will be tried in 2015. The evidence I most want to hear: the streetcar operator’s version of events. I hope he will still be alive and well, memory intact, and his evidence not at all influenced.
Meanwhile, of past inquests into police shootings, Ontario’s Ombudsman André Marin has said that recommendations have been virtually identical over the past 20 years. He has commented about the definition of insanity being to keep repeating the same behavior and expect different outcomes***. Let’s hope something really new and meaningful comes out of this investigation. Like implementation of clear new procedural guidelines – not only for handling someone in mental distress, but for assessing situations from point A. Changes should include a new training curriculum with significant time spent on compassionate, competent handling of such crises.
Among other things, the police need to know they are not here to protect merely ‘middle-class -4th-generation-Canadians-in perfect mental-and-physical-health’.
The horror story here is that it’s too often the ‘protectors’ from whom we need protection. Is it possibly because Toronto Police Services are immature, like Toronto? As with people, and groups of people, cities take time to mature, and so do their police. It’s a sign of maturity to be able to admit you are wrong, just as it is a sign of maturity to be able to laugh at yourself, to take yourself less seriously. Are we finally, in Toronto, beginning to enter that era in our history?
A hopeful sign would be if Toronto implements the Ombudsman’s recommendations.