1 Kagashicage

Sammy Yatim Mother Interview Essay

The death of Sammy Yatim unleashed a torrent of anti-police outrage. For most Torontonians, the video was the verdict. But what really happened on the Dundas streetcar that night? The untold story of the cop who pulled the trigger—and why

Just before midnight on July 26, 2013, Sammy Yatim boarded a westbound Dundas streetcar and made his way to the back. He was wearing the standard teen trifecta of baseball cap, black T-shirt and jeans that hung loosely off his slight frame. Despite the late hour, the streetcar was filling up. It was a Friday night in the middle of the summer, and Toronto was hopping: Justin Bieber at the ACC, Kiss at the Molson Amphitheatre, a beer festival at the CNE grounds and the Jays hosting the Houston Astros at the Dome.

Four young women got on around Spadina and found seats in the back, near Yatim. Soon ­after, he unzipped his fly and pulled out his penis. The other passengers heard a piercing scream and turned around to see one of the women jump out of her seat. Yatim had a stiletto switchblade and had tried to slash the woman’s throat. The panic onboard was instantaneous. The crowd surged forward on the streetcar, some rushing down the steps to the back exit, most pushing toward the front to get as far away from Yatim as possible. Frantic passengers were screaming to get out as Yatim inched up the aisle toward them, but the doors wouldn’t open on the moving streetcar and the steps quickly clogged with people. Yatim shouted, “Nobody get off the fucking streetcar.” All the while, he had the knife outstretched in one hand and his penis in the other.

The streetcar driver saw the stampede behind him and stopped the car at Bellwoods Avenue, opening both sets of doors. Passengers pushed and stumbled their way out. Some landed hard on the pavement before scrambling away. Inside the streetcar, one more rider was backing up the aisle, dragging his bike in front of him like a shield as Yatim advanced with his eyes wide and his jaw clenched. By the time the passenger reached the front door, Yatim had switched gears and was telling everyone to get off the streetcar, so the passenger jumped out, bike in tow.

Behind Yatim, the car looked to be deserted. Suddenly, a male passenger who had been hiding between two seats popped his head up and crept over to the back doors. He stood there for several seconds, as if trying to guess whether Yatim was going to stay on the streetcar or go out the front, probably to avoid running straight into him. He decided to take his chances and ran out the back.

Then it was just Yatim and the driver, who’d waited ­until all the passengers were off ­before trying to make his exit. By this time, several ­people outside had phoned 911, inc­luding one of the women from the back of the streetcar, who was crying hysterically into her phone, saying, “A man tried to kill me.” The police were seconds away. Yatim and the driver seemed to see the flashing lights through the front window at the same moment. The driver bolted just as Yatim lunged at him with the knife.

Yatim was alone at the front of the streetcar when ­Constable James Forcillo and his partner, the first cops on the scene, rushed to the open doorway. The only information Forcillo had when he arrived was that a man had tried to stab a girl on the streetcar. As the “roll-up” cop, Forcillo was the de facto officer in charge until a division sergeant got there. He pulled out his gun, a police-issue Glock 22 with hollow-point bullets, and stood roughly 12 feet away from the door, legs splayed, aiming squarely at Yatim. Like all Toronto police, Forcillo had been trained to take out his weapon only if he believed lethal force might be necessary. In other words, when a cop pulls his gun, it’s never a bluff. He’s prepared to use it.

“Drop the knife,” Forcillo ordered.

“No. You’re a fucking pussy,” Yatim replied.

Forcillo asked his partner to radio for a Taser to subdue ­Yatim. In Toronto, only division sergeants are allowed to carry Tasers. Normally, there are two road sergeants for each shift, but that night there was only one on duty for 14 Division, which covers seven downtown neighbourhoods—the Annex, Kensington-Chinatown, Palmerston–Little Italy, Christie-Ossington, Trinity Bellwoods, South Parkdale and the waterfront. Forcillo’s sergeant could have been in any one of them.

Over the cacophony of competing sirens as other officers arrived at the scene, Forcillo and two other cops shouted at Yatim half a dozen times to drop his weapon. Every time a cop barked, “Drop the knife,” Yatim’s answer was the same: “You’re a fucking pussy.”

Behind Forcillo, passengers were talking about what had just happened on the streetcar, some of them crying. It was Forcillo’s job to contain the scene and make sure Yatim didn’t get off the streetcar wielding a weapon. He could have reached Forcillo in one leap. If he jumped out into the crowd with his knife, Forcillo wouldn’t have been able to use his gun without endangering bystanders. He warned Yatim, “If you take one more step in this direction, that’s it for you, I’m telling you right now.” Yatim turned away and stepped back into the interior of the streetcar, then appeared to make a decision. He turned to face Forcillo and took a step toward the exit. Another cop shouted “Drop the—” but didn’t get to finish his sentence before Forcillo fired three quick shots. Yatim crumpled to the floor of the streetcar, still holding the knife. Cops were yelling “Drop it” when Forcillo squeezed off six more shots. He was the only officer to fire his gun. The cop standing on his right had his gun drawn but didn’t fire. His partner, standing a few feet to his left, never took her gun out of her holster.

Almost a dozen cops raced over. Yatim was still moving, still clenching the knife, when the division sergeant arrived, darted through the front doors and Tasered him. The crackle of the stun gun was unmistakable. Several more officers boarded the streetcar. One of them kicked the knife away from Yatim’s hand, and it hurtled into the air, clattering against the streetcar window. ­Another began CPR. Forcillo, ­standing in the ­middle of the crush of cops clustered at the front door, abruptly wheeled away and stood alone for a few seconds. An officer walked over and put his hand on Forcillo’s shoulder, leading him from the scene.

Police continued to do chest compressions on Yatim until the paramedics arrived and took over. He was pronounced dead at St. Michael’s Hospital early in the morning of July 27.

Within an hour, a cellphone video was posted to YouTube and quickly went viral. It was reposted on Facebook and ­Twitter and led every newscast across the city. Toronto was transfixed by the last 90 seconds of Sammy Yatim’s life. A city-wide consensus quickly formed: this 18-year-old didn’t have to die. The police could have held their fire and waited for the ­Taser. They could have tried to talk Yatim down instead of working him up, or shot the knife out of his hand, or used ­pepper spray. There had to be a non-lethal option available. And the question on everyone’s mind was, what kind of cop shoots a troubled teenager nine times?

In his six years on the force, James Forcillo had never fired his gun on the job until that night. He had drawn it before, during an arrest in Kensington Market, but managed to persuade two armed suspects to surrender without incident. Forcillo looks older than his 31 years. He has a square, heavyset build and a wary cast to his eyes. A second-generation Italian-Canadian, he spent his early childhood in Montreal, close to his mother’s large family. His father worked in the textile industry, moving from job to job, with long stretches of money troubles in between. A job change brought the family to Toronto when Forcillo was 12. A few years after that, his father found work in California, and Forcillo and his mom split their time between Toronto and L.A. When he was 18, he moved to ­California to live with his dad full-time, and his mother died of lung cancer shortly afterward. He enrolled in a criminal justice program, something that had interested him since high school, and graduated summa cum laude, but he wasn’t able to work without a green card. His relationship with his father soured, and at age 20 he decided to come back to Toronto to pursue a career in policing.

Forcillo met his future wife, Irina, in 2003, when he rented the basement apartment in her parents’ North York house. Like all cops, he’s prohibited from talking about any case that’s in front of the courts, including his own, but the rule doesn’t ­apply to his wife, who agreed to be interviewed for this story. A manager in a financial services firm, Irina is a stylish woman, self-possessed and yet unexpectedly girlish when she smiles. She comes from a close-knit Ukrainian family that immigrated to Israel when she was seven and then to Canada when she was 15. You can still hear the mix of hard Russian consonants and Israeli inflections in her voice.

They were an unlikely couple—Forcillo is shy and quiet, and Irina is outgoing and boisterous—but her family quickly brought him into the fold. Irina was in the last year of her business degree at U of T, and Forcillo was following a well-worn path to the police force. He worked as a security guard and studied psychology at York. In 2006 he became a court officer, escorting prisoners to and from their cells and maintaining order in the courtroom. The following year, he and Irina were married, and the year after that, when Irina was pregnant with their first child, Forcillo got the call that he had been accepted into the police-training program.

Forcillo’s expectations didn’t always match up to the ­reality. As a beat cop in the city’s downtown core, his job wasn’t glamorous. When he’d get home after a shift and Irina would push him to talk about his day, he’d say he didn’t see the sense in telling her about crack houses or suicides or the drunk who puked in his car or performing CPR on a guy who died anyway. He loved his work—he’d tell Irina he couldn’t imagine doing ­anything else—but he wasn’t married to it. He was more likely to head straight home after a shift than go out for a beer with his fellow officers. Sometimes Irina would encourage him to socialize more, but he’d say that at the end of a shift he just wanted to put his hat on the wall and be a dad.

Anyone married to a cop worries. Before Irina met Forcillo, all she knew about police work was what she saw in movies. To to try to reassure her, he told her a version of what most cops tell their spouses: “I could go my whole career and never have to use my gun. I hope I will never use my gun. And most likely I won’t. So calm down.”

Still, it was easy for Irina to fall down the rabbit hole of what-ifs. So she set some ground rules. First, she made him promise that no matter how busy he was at work, if she called him, he had to text her back, even just a one-liner to say he was okay, so she wouldn’t lie awake at night picturing him sprawled on a sidewalk. And then something else: “I told him, ‘You’ve got to promise me you’re going to come home to me.’ And he said, ‘I promise you, if it’s either me or someone else, it’s going to be someone else. I’m going to come home to you.’”

After shooting Yatim, Forcillo was taken to 14 Division. Whenever an officer has been involved in the death or serious injury of a civilian, the Special Investigations Unit is immediately called in. Following standard SIU protocol, a sergeant took Forcillo’s gun and cellphone, and segregated him from the other cops who’d been at the scene to prevent them from comparing stories and corrupting the investigation. He spent the next several hours in an interrogation room by himself, not permitted to leave unless chaperoned by another officer. The Toronto Police Association called the firm Brauti Thorning Zibarras, the union’s go-to lawyers for high-profile police cases.

Peter Brauti looks more like an NHL enforcer than a top-shelf lawyer. He’s well over six feet, with a shaved head and eyes that could drill a hole through cement. He was at his ­Muskoka cottage when he got a call from one of his associates. It was in the early hours of the morning, and the associate told his boss about the YouTube video. Brauti pulled it up on his phone and immediately understood how explosive this case was about to get.

Around the time Brauti was watching the video, Forcillo was allowed to make a phone call to his wife so that she wouldn’t find out about the shooting on the news. When her phone rang at 2 a.m., she knew something terrible had happened: “He never calls me in the middle of the night. He said, ‘Babe?’ and I hear his voice and it’s not his usual voice. It’s a bit lower. ‘There was a shooting. I was involved in a shooting. I’m okay. It was a good shoot.’ I said, ‘Is the other person okay?’ And he said, ‘No.’ And I asked him, ‘But it was a good shoot?’ And he said, ‘Yeah. But I gotta go.’ And that’s it. That was the call.” After he hung up, Irina lay in bed, her heart thumping out of her chest, and waited for morning.

Her husband was allowed to leave 14 Division around 6 a.m. and was home by 7. He walked Irina through what had happened on the streetcar. Then he told her about the video, and they watched it together. “I was watching it and I wasn’t concentrating on what’s going on in the background. I was looking at my husband. You know, shooting. This chaos. The screaming and yelling.” Irina didn’t have time to think about what she’d just seen. She had to get to work and act as if it were just an ordinary day in front of her co-workers. But she understood the enormity of those 90 seconds: “He took a life. You’re sitting in front of the person that you know very well, and now there’s this additional layer. How often do you sit in front of a person who has taken another person’s life?”

Two days after Yatim’s death, almost a thousand people joined his mother, Sahar Bahadi, and 16-year-old sister, Sarah, at Yonge-Dundas Square to protest the police’s use of excessive force. The group marched west on Dundas toward Bellwoods Avenue, carrying “Justice for Sammy!” signs, and chanting “Shame!” and “Think before you kill!” They stopped outside 52 Division and pushed toward the entranceway. ­Dozens of police officers held the crowd back and blocked the doors with their bicycles, while march organizers pleaded with ­protesters to stay calm. Forcillo’s critics characterized the standoff as a typical example of the cops circling the wagons around one of their own. On the other side, police were feeling under siege, the actions of one cop tainting the reputation of the entire force.

In the days and weeks that followed, the story of Sammy ­Yatim’s life took shape. He grew up in Aleppo, Syria, and came to Canada in 2008 to live with his father, Nabil Yatim, a management consultant, in Scarborough. His mother, a ­pediatrician and a devout Christian whose home in Syria was decorated with pictures of Jesus, stayed behind. When Yatim was killed, Bahadi was with relatives in Montreal, working on her immigration.

Yatim had attended Brebeuf College, an all-boys ­Catholic high school near Bayview and Steeles with a reputation for academic excellence (alumni include the social activist Marc ­Kielburger and the novelist Joseph Boyden). In his senior year, he transferred to an alternative school where he was reportedly hanging out with a new, tougher crowd and seemed less ­focused on his education. After one in a series of arguments with his father, he had moved out of his home and was sleeping on a friend’s couch.

Early news reports suggested he was mentally ill, but his family denied this, as did friends and former teachers, who characterized his behaviour on the night he was killed as anomalous. They described a sweet, gentle kid and said that whatever struggles he was having, at least up until that night, fell within the bounds of typical teenage drama.

The Yatim family hired Julian Falconer, a civil rights activist and the city’s top lawyer for the families of people killed or seriously injured by the police. Falconer conducted his own investigation into the shooting, and, in February, filed a ­multimillion-dollar civil action against Forcillo and two ­other officers at the scene, as well as police Chief Bill Blair and the ­Toronto Police Services Board, alleging cruelty, excessive force and insufficient training. (At press time, no statement of ­defence had yet been filed.) Three official investigations were also launched in the wake of the shooting. Chief Blair called for an independent review to examine how police respond to ­emotionally disturbed people, and, in late July, the former Supreme Court Justice Frank Iacobucci released his sweeping report, which included 84 recommendations ranging from increased training to outfitting front-line cops with Tasers and body cameras. The Ontario ombudsman, André Marin, opened an investigation into use-of-force guidelines, including de-­escalation techniques. And Ontario’s police watchdog—the Office of the Independent Police Review Director—launched its own review of use-of-force tactics involving people in crisis.

When police talk about use of force, they’re referring to the way they deploy all options at their disposal, from bare hands to pepper spray to batons to guns. For Toronto police, the training begins during the two-month program at the Ontario Police College in Aylmer and continues with ­mandatory refresher courses every year. The cornerstone of the college’s teaching is the Use-of-Force Model, which is depicted as a wheel of concentric circles dictating how cops should respond to threatening situations. One circle lists the suspect’s behaviour, moving clockwise from “cooperative” to “resistant” to “assaultive” to “serious bodily harm or death.” The others outline an officer’s response options, from simple observation to physical intervention (like tackling a suspect) to lethal force. The model is designed to address the fluid, unpredictable nature of police encounters, and it demands that cops continually assess and reassess a situation as it unfolds, making decisions on the fly.

When a police officer regards a situation as potentially life-­threatening, the only response option on the wheel is lethal force. An edged weapon confrontation (someone brandishing a knife or a pair of scissors) qualifies: faced with a knife, police officers will automatically take out their guns. They’re trained to aim at a suspect’s chest (which gives them the largest target and the best chance of immobilizing the person), and they’re told to shoot until the threat is neutralized—that is, until the suspect can’t continue the attack.

TPS officers are also taught to create distance between themselves and the person they’re facing down, so there’s enough time to respond if the suspect charges. This used to be called the 21-foot rule, but it’s now referred to as a reactionary gap and generally considered to be closer to 30 feet. Like the Use-of-Force Model, a reactionary gap is specific to each situation. An officer considers how big, small, fast, slow, heavy or high a suspect is, among other factors, and decides how quickly he might close the gap.

At the police college, cadets are placed in a series of simulations at the Outdoor Village, an elaborate set that includes sidewalks, storefronts and sections of an apartment building. There is scaffolding in place above the scenes where class members can observe. In one scenario, a cadet stands in a courtyard with a bag over his head. The bag is removed and he sees a man sitting on a bench reading a book, about 20 feet away. The bag is put back on and then removed again. Now the man is running straight at him with a knife in his hand. Can the cadet pull out his gun in time? Does he have time to back up? The answer is almost always no. In another scenario, a cadet knocks on a door to respond to what he believes is a simple noise complaint. Instead, when the door opens, he’s ambushed; a man with a fake knife charges at the cadet and tackles him to the ground, stabbing him multiple times. The knives in these simulations are electrically charged to deliver a jolt. The thinking is that electrical shocks drive home the point of the injuries a cop will sustain if he doesn’t successfully subdue the assailant.

In another exercise, a cadet uses a red marker as a knife to attack a fellow cadet, who’s wearing a white jumpsuit. The first cadet slashes and stabs away while the one in white does ­everything he can to prevent the marker from making contact. ­Despite his best efforts, the cadet in white is covered in red at the end of the exercise. An instructor then points out, based on the density of the ink and the location on the body, which of the red marks would constitute fatal wounds.

Cadets also learn communication strategies, roughly 12 hours over their two months at the academy. And officers are required to attend a three-day seminar every year that looks at the latest de-escalation techniques. But unlike what we see on police procedurals, a real cop won’t strike up a heartfelt conversation with someone holding a lethal weapon. They’re told to focus a suspect with clear, sharp commands—“Drop the knife”—in order to control the situation. Soft talk—“You seem upset; how can I help?”—the kind of communication that might put an unstable person at ease, can’t happen until the suspect lets go of the weapon.

At a coroner’s inquest into the police shootings of three ­mentally disturbed people, which wrapped up last February, Ron Hoffman, who trains new recruits in mental health issues, testified that police get extensive schooling in de-escalation ­techniques—both how to identify people in crisis and how to talk them down. When a suspect is threatening a cop with a sharp object, however, de-escalation isn’t an option: “The officer is bound to act,” he said.

The vast majority of arrests in Toronto—99 per cent—­happen without use of force. And use-of-force incidents are on the ­decline. Our police are generally good at defusing ­incendiary situations, except when they come up against emotionally disturbed ­assailants. Like the three inquest subjects, Sammy ­Yatim was in distress—­erratic and unpredictable, but not a hardened criminal. The TPS has Mobile Crisis Intervention Teams that partner mental health nurses with specially trained cops, but ­MCITs can only assist in confrontational situations once a suspect has been disarmed, and they’re not on call after 11 p.m. Until we adopt a better model, Toronto’s front-line cops will continue to make critical assessments in the blink of an eye under the worst possible circumstances.

Simulations and other training techniques can only do so much to prepare ­cadets for ­real-life encounters in the field. The best training for high-pressure situations happens on the job. The more experience cops have, the higher their tolerance for threat, and the less likely they are to shoot prematurely. Yet there’s a shortage of veteran front-line cops in ­Toronto. The ­average street cop, like Forcillo, has been doing it for less than seven years. In a job that’s increasingly stressful, messy, thankless and dangerous, the rewards just aren’t high enough, so they’re moving into specialized units or opting for desk jobs or training positions as early as possible in their careers. Police call the phenomenon “flight from the front.”

On July 30, three days after the shooting, Irina Forcillo was in her car when her best friend called in a panic. “They released his name,” her friend said. “I’m looking at his face right now. It’s on CP24.”

Within hours, reporters descended on the Forcillos’ North York home. Television vans and camera crews trying to get a picture of Forcillo and his family set up camp across the street. Journalists harassed the Forcillos’ friends, relatives and neighbours for information. Irina was bombarded with media ­requests through Facebook and Twitter, and a reporter showed up at her mother’s workplace. The Forcillos now have two daughters—Alexandra is five and Nicole is three—and it became impossible to get the kids in and out of the house safely, so they temporarily moved into Irina’s parents’ house nearby.

Irina shut down her social media accounts when threats against her husband started popping up everywhere. One anonymous person tweeted “We know where you are. Expect us.” Police removed the most serious comments and continue to investigate some, but they keep reappearing online. “Fucking pig better go down for this or shit will hit the fan. I’m not fucking kidding pigs” and “It’s way past time to have an INTERNATIONAL FRY PIG DAY! There was no reason on Earth for them to shoot that boy.” Brauti received threatening emails, and a letter with a picture of the World Trade Center towers collapsing was sent to every member of his staff, suggesting that Forcillo’s actions were equally heinous.

Forcillo was shocked by the deluge of online comments and news stories. He told Irina that he sometimes wondered if there was something else he could have done on that night. Mostly, she says, he felt betrayed: “I do something because nobody else wants to do it,” he told her. “I do my job, and now the same people who call in the cops to help them and protect them are telling me what I did was awful.”

Immediately after Yatim’s death, Forcillo saw the department’s psychologist, which is standard for officers involved in fatal shootings, and he continues to see a psychologist today. Peter Brauti, who couldn’t discuss the specifics of Forcillo’s case, talked to me in general terms about police shootings and said he has noticed a pattern. “Officers don’t usually embrace counselling at the beginning, because it’s a bit of a culture of, ‘I did my job.’ Or, ‘I’m supposed to be a symbol of strength or confidence for the public.’ But then after some time, you see them become more open to it because they realize, ‘You know what? I’m not okay.’”

Canada’s criminal code defines second-degree murder as the unplanned but intentional killing of another person without legal defence or justification. On August 19, just three weeks after the shooting, the SIU—which had interviewed streetcar passengers and other eyewitnesses, and had scrutinized all the cellphone recordings, surveillance images and security video—charged Forcillo with second-degree murder in the death of Sammy Yatim.

If Forcillo is convicted, he faces life in prison without the possibility of parole for at least 10 years. It’s an unusual charge, ­especially for a police officer in the line of duty. In fact, Forcillo is one of only three Ontario police officers to face a second-degree murder charge since the SIU was formed in 1990. One of them, Constable Randy Martin of York Regional Police, was acquitted in 2000 in the shooting death of 44-year-old Tony Romagnuolo during the attempted arrest of Romagnuolo’s 17-year-old son. A fist fight had broken out on the front lawn of the Romagnuolos’ home, and in the struggle Martin shot and killed the father.

The other case took four years to resolve. In 2010, ­David ­Cavanagh, a Toronto Emergency Task Force officer, was charged in the death of 26-year-old Eric Osawe after a drug and weapons raid went horribly wrong. While ­Cavanagh and Osawe were struggling on the floor, ­Cavanagh’s sub­machine gun accidentally discharged and shot Osawe in the back. The Crown, in conjunction with the SIU, originally charged Cavanagh with manslaughter, but the judge dismissed the case before it could go to trial. The Crown appealed, upping the charge to second-degree murder, and the case was dismissed for a second time—the judge ruled Osawe’s death a “tragic but accidental confluence of circumstances that occurred in a high-pressure and high-risk situation.” The Crown appealed again, but the case was dismissed for the third and final time this past April. ­Cavanagh saw a ­psychiatrist and was on medication for anxiety and ­insomnia for a time. He’s still a cop but has not been in the field as an ETF officer since the shooting.

When Forcillo was charged, Cavanagh called him to offer support and suggested they meet for a coffee. “My first time meeting with him, I saw the look in his eyes,” says ­Cavanagh, “an aloofness that was familiar to me—that thousand-yard stare.” Cavanagh is blunt about how devastated he was by his ordeal. At his first psychiatric appointment, he was so discombobulated he left the engine running in his parked car. “Nobody goes to work thinking I’m going to kill somebody ­today. To have something like this happen is unbelievable. You read about somebody facing the same charge—somebody who robbed a bank and killed a teller—and I’m facing the same legal consequences as this person even though I was executing my duty. Trying to make sense of something that doesn’t make sense really causes the wheels to spin in your head.”

When the charge against Forcillo was publicly announced, Yatim’s sister tweeted “Good morning JUSTICE,” and the city seemed to exhale a collective sigh of relief.

Forcillo was arrested at Brauti’s office the next day and taken to a holding cell at Old City Hall. A few hours later, ­Brauti was in front of Justice Gary Trotter with his ­request for bail. Forcillo’s in-laws posted his $510,000 bond, and he was released ­shortly afterward. The judge included a 9 p.m. house curfew among Forcillo’s bail conditions.

There was nothing for him to do but wait. The Forcillos moved back into their house after the media ­frenzy died down, and he stayed home while Irina worked.

Forcillo was reinstated to desk duty last February but is not permitted to carry a weapon or wear his uniform. His assignment to Crime Stoppers caused another flare of outrage across the city. A Facebook group calling itself Sammy’s Fight Back for Justice issued a statement: “We are extremely disappointed that a police officer charged with second-degree murder of which there is ample video evidence is being allowed to return to duty.”

Forcillo’s preliminary hearing began in April and lasted four weeks. Prelims give both sides the chance to hear evidence that will be presented at the trial. As is now standard in most criminal cases, the judge, Richard LeDressay, issued a publication ban on any evidence presented at the pretrial. This is done to protect the jury pool from being tainted—an increasingly difficult task in high-profile cases when viral images flood the media.

In late July, the Crown added a charge of attempted murder, likely in case they’re unable to convict on the murder charge. The trial itself won’t happen for at least another year. The Crown will argue that Yatim’s death was criminal, that Forcillo cannot justify the shooting. They will likely focus on alternative ­choices Forcillo could have made before firing his gun. He could have waited for the Taser. He could have backed up to create more distance between himself and Yatim. He could have closed the streetcar doors. They will likely zero in on the fact that Forcillo was the only cop to fire, that he clearly interpreted the threat differently than the other officers at the scene. And undoubtedly they will hammer away at the shocking six shots he fired after his first three put Yatim on the streetcar floor as proof that he used excessive force.

On the other side, the defence will argue that every action Forcillo took was consistent with his training. That he had good reason to fear for his life and the lives of the people on the street. That he was charged with the responsibility of making a split-second decision in a chaotic situation, and that’s exactly what he did. The jury will hear, among other things, about police training, rogue cops, troubled teenagers, illegal drugs, adrenalin dumps, sightlines, ballistics, biased media and cop culture. They’ll have to sift through a mountain of evidence, including a 90-second video that can’t possibly tell the whole story.

James Forcillo normally enters Courtroom 4-8 at the Superior Court of Justice building at 361 University well before the 10 am start to take his seat at the defence table. 

If the Toronto police constable charged with second-degree murder and attempted murder in the July 27, 2013, shooting death of Sammy Yatim on a Dundas streetcar is nervous or even scared, he's determined not to show it. Behind the tough-guy pout, he seems oddly nonchalant for a guy who's facing jail on a murder rap.

But this trial is likely just the opening chapter in what will be an extended legal battle, if the long game his lawyers are playing - perhaps setting the stage for an appeal if necessary - is any clue. 

At NOW press time Wednesday, November 25, Forcillo was expected to take the stand in his own defence, a risky legal move which will expose his actions on the night in question to cross-examination by the Crown. But Forcillo has little choice.

Like the police shooting deaths of young men in Ferguson, New York City, Chicago and beyond, there is much connecting Yatim's killing to broader concerns about police and the impunity they're usually granted when they kill.

As a black man concerned about community and policing issues, I've always thought the criminal justice system did its business in an irrevocably flawed manner where police are concerned. So it never occurred to me that my participation was needed in order for it to decide the fates - justly or otherwise - of the men and women who come before it.

But in the case of Yatim, the video of the shooting, which went viral in all its grisly detail before any media spin or legal twist could be put on it, made us all witness to police behaviour in its most shocking form. 

Should Forcillo avoid conviction, it would only surprise those who haven't already discerned what is frighteningly obvious from the proceedings so far: police lives matter more than yours. 

Though eerily similar to the recent deaths of other people in crisis at the hands of Toronto police, Yatim's was caught on video. The footage from a TTC security camera shows him being felled by three shots from Forcillo's 9 mm Glock 22 and then five more rounds as Yatim lay mortally wounded on the streetcar floor. It's hard to watch, causing Yatim's mother to sob audibly in her seat in the front row each time it's been shown on three large screens in the courtroom. It took me back to when I was 14 and watched Rodney King being brutally beaten by Los Angeles police officers. It flushed me with the same anger and sense that the law had been grossly - and perhaps irredeemably - perverted by those expected to uphold it.

Some of us were persuaded that Yatim's death was different, that in some way he doesn't deserve our calls for justice. After all, he exposed himself on a public transit vehicle and brandished a knife - a prohibited weapon under the Criminal Code, Forcillo's lawyers point out - causing terrified passengers to flee. He was troubled and agitated. Most significantly, he refused to comply with police commands to disarm. The term "suicide by police" has been floated.

But the trial has allowed us to know a lot more about what Yatim did shortly before he was killed. We know he spoke confusedly with a TTC janitor at the Dundas station and asked him for a phone to make a call. Ominously, we also learned that he asked the janitor to call the police. 

We now know that Yatim consumed drugs sometime before he died. Toxicologist Inger Bugyra testified that Yatim had detectable quantities of ecstasy, marijuana and a metabolite of cocaine in his body when he died. 

Chad Seymour, the streetcar driver, testified that Yatim also asked him for a phone, saying he wanted to speak with his father, with whom he was sent here to live in 2008 from Aleppo, Syria. They often fought, according to friends. 

Seymour jumped clear of the streetcar, and Yatim was alone on board when Forcillo and other officers arrived just outside the vehicle's open front doors, their guns drawn. On synched audio taken from nearby cellphones, Forcillo can be heard shouting, "Drop the knife!" several times. 

Then, "Drop the fucking knife." Yatim says "No," and, told to "drop the fucking knife," replies, "You're a fuckin' pussy. You're all pussies Everyone's a pussy." [See full transcipt here.]

Forcillo, speaking to Yatim, who'd retreated a short distance into the streetcar, says: "You take one step in this direction and I'm going to shoot you, I am telling you right now." We don't know how Yatim reacted to this warning. We don't see his face. When he re-enters the frame, taking the slightest of steps back toward the front doors where he'd been standing just moments before, the first three shots are fired, sending him backwards and to the floor, one bullet entering his heart, another severing his spinal cord. Seconds later, another volley of six bullets, five of which cut into Yatim's body as he lay dying. 

All of this happened within less than a minute of Forcillo's arrival on the scene. 

Witnesses who were either on the streetcar prior to the fatal shooting or watching the drama from the street have said Yatim's actions prior to being shot were more baffling than threatening. 

Jesse Grasso watched the incident unfold from in front of the Black Hoof restaurant. He told the court that Yatim "looked non-responsive" and "oblivious." In earlier testimony, Martin Baron, who made one of the street-level videos of the confrontation, said Yatim "looked nervous." Another described him as "befuddled."

Taken together, most of the witnesses suggested that Yatim didn't look or act menacing. He probably looked pretty much like what he was: a young man in crisis.

The defence has painted a more threatening picture. According to its version of events, Forcillo was uncertain about what he was up against when he arrived on the scene. The "hotshot" call from police dispatchers related that there was a man with a knife on a streetcar. Forcillo did what his police training taught him to do, testified Deputy Chief Mike Federico: he fired until the perceived threat - in this case, Yatim's refusal to drop his knife - was stopped. The inference is clear. Because he refused to drop the knife, that slight step, call it a mere shuffling of his feet, toward the streetcar doors cost him his life. 

Forcillo's lawyershave suggested that officers on the scene thought there might have been someone else on the streetcar, a potential hostage, which only raises more questions about why they didn't call the Emergency Task Force. Defence lawyer Peter Brauti has also suggested that Yatim was experiencing "excited delirium" and that closing the streetcar doors by flipping the switch on the outside of the vehicle was not an option for fear Yatim might commandeer the vehicle "and start ripping through Toronto with 40 tonnes of steel." Driving a streetcar is more difficult than that. I know because I've driven one.

But the video has also been used by the defence to sow doubt about what witnesses testified they saw. 

Grasso, the witness at the Black Hoof, was convinced he'd seen the streetcar driver jump from the back doors, when in fact the video clearly shows him leaping from the front. Similarly, Baron told investigators Yatim was "absolutely frozen" prior to being shot, only to admit after seeing the video that he did appear to be moving toward the front of the streetcar. 

These discrepancies may not add up to more than an attempt at deflection by the defence. There seems little doubt from the video that Forcillo screwed up. As the $2 million lawsuit filed by the Yatim's mother and sister against Toronto police points out, "Police officers are public servants and owe a duty to care to individuals they detain or arrest." A police officer's first duty is the preservation of life. Clearly, that didn't happen in Yatim's case. 

The suit alleges that Forcillo acted with malice and reckless disregard for Yatim's life. 

The court has also heard that Forcillo's gun was loaded with .40 calibre hollow-point bullets that expand on contact and are designed to cause significant damage. Apart from Forcillo's actions, other witnesses have testified that there was no attempt by police arriving on the scene to coordinate their efforts or defuse the situation.

But under the law, officers are not judged by a standard of perfection. Allowances have to be made in circumstances that turn deadly, because of the dangerous demands of their job, we're constantly told. 

It's a fine line. The jury will not be charged with deciding what non-lethal options were available to Forcillo when he arrived at the scene. Rather, they'll be asked to determine whether non-lethal alternatives were available to Forcillo at the time he fired. Arguably, that's not so clear-cut when the police training manual considers pointing a gun a de-escalation technique. Never mind preservation of life or Forcillo's state of mind. Never mind any of that. 

Brautiis tall and broad-shouldered. He looks like he can go a few rounds. He has the look of a man with serious business to settle, and often lectures Crown witnesses who second-guess Forcillo's actions. He dubbed the Crown's key witness in the case, American use-of-force expert Robert Warshaw, a "Monday-morning quarterback" and "jack of all trades but master of none" before telling him, his voice dripping with sarcasm, "You're in way over your head on this one, aren't you?" 

Warshaw held his own, mostly, under the barrage, if we can judge by the coverage in the papers. His testimony has been described as the trial's defining moment so far. 

A former police chief who has advised police forces on use-of-force policy, Warshaw testified that everything on that fateful night "went from A to Z rather quickly." What could Forcillo have done differently? Everything. The most obvious option, said Warshaw, was to wait until Yatim calmed down on his own. Instead, Forcillo charged onto the scene yelling at him to "drop the fucking knife" - language Warshaw described as "a relic of days gone by."

Brauti's cross-examination of Warshaw was dramatic, if somewhat predictable. 

But it's been harder to assess the effect Brauti's courtroom theatrics have had on the jury. At one point, he tried to slip into his questioning of Warshaw that Yatim was "within striking distance" of Forcillo while he stood on the top step of the streetcar. That would be stretching the truth. 

Milan Rupic, the methodical Crown prosecutor and foil to Brauti's forceful character, rose to object but could only muster something about Brauti's tactics being "unfair." It will be interesting to see if a more aggressive Rupic appears to cross-examine the defence's reported 40-plus witnesses, but there's no doubt at this point who's commanding the courtroom.

Justice Edward Then, who's presided over proceedings involving everyone from former prime ministers to out-of-control city mayors, is regarded as fair by almost all accounts. But even he is having trouble reining Brauti in, regularly having to correct statements Brauti's made.

Some days the jury spends as much time out of the courtroom as it does hearing testimony while Forcillo's lawyers and the Crown argue points of law. 

And five weeks in, signs of fatigue are visible in some in the jury of eight women and four men. They thought they'd be done by Christmas, but it now looks like they won't begin their deliberations until mid-January at the earliest - barring any other surprises in a trial that has been full of them. 

On Friday afternoon, November 20, as the Crown was wrapping up its case, Brauti signalled that a disagreement with the Crown over an expert in the use of force that the defence has called to testify on Forcillo's behalf may delay proceedings indefinitely. The details of that disagreement are covered by a publication ban. Suffice it to say that Forcillo's lawyers are content to use every legal lever at their disposal.

Andrew Loku, a 45-year-old father of five who brandished a hammer after a dispute with a neighbour, was shot and killed by police in his apartment building on July 4, 2015. Witnesses heard police demand that Loku drop the hammer mere seconds before he we shot and killed. 

Jermaine Carby, 33, was pulled over on a Brampton street and subsequently shot to death by Peel Regional Police on September 24, 2014. Police said he had a knife, although the Special Investigations Unit found no knife at the scene. 

Michael Eligon, 29, left Toronto East General Hospital on February 3, 2012 in a hospital gown after being admitted for mental assessment. He was shot and killed by police while holding scissors. 

Police responses to such killings have been almost precisely the same in their scripted denial of culpability. All the victims were shot and killed quickly, their deaths deemed justifiable because officers said they acted to protect their own lives. 

But each of these men had a history of mental illness. As persons with mental health issues, their deaths are in essence system failures. It bears mentioning, however, that all of them, including Yatim, were men of colour. What role did racial profiling play, if any, in Yatim's death? He was 14 when he immigrated to Canada. His ESL teacher testified that he could speak English, but not fluently.

At the Toronto Police Services Board meeting on November 10, Deputy Chief Federico delivered an evaluation of the Mobile Crisis Intervention Teams (MCIT) put in place to deal with people in crisis after the Yatim shooting. The review of more than 2,600 interactions since July 2014 found that those experiencing mental health crises report "more consistently positive" interactions with the MCITs than with police. 

The evaluation found that clients received better information about medication and mental health resources available to them from the crisis intervention teams compared to police.

That report has been around since August, but community groups apparently only found out it would be presented to the board at the last minute, a fact that John Sewell of the Toronto Police Accountability Coalition didn't want to read too much into in his presentation to the board, noting the ongoing Forcillo trial. The report makes 25 recommendations, including expanding MCITs, but it seems it was meant as information for the board only. 

It talks a lot about the need for more police training, a subject that Sewell told the board we've been talking about "like a broken record" for years. "Police are not committed to the issue of dealing with mental health issues and don't know very much about it," said Sewell. "Culture eats training for lunch. What you have to do is change the practice." 

Indeed, we've known that since the coroner's inquest into the 1997 police shooting death of medical student Edmond Yu - and nothing has changed. Yu was shot on a bus while he was in possession of a small hammer. 

The trial continues.

With files from Enzo DiMatteo.

news@nowtoronto.com | @nowtoronto

Leave a Comment


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *