Sewell: for Sammy Yatim, leaders need to lead


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Protesters unite against police violence (Image: Joseph Morris)

Virtually everyone who knows about the death of Sammy Yatim thinks that the police did something unnecessary and wrong. The 18-year-old was clearly in a mental crisis as he allegedly exposed himself and waved a knife at those on a Dundas streetcar on the evening of July 27.

Everyone got off the streetcar, leaving Sammy on it alone. Police officers surrounded the vehicle and several shouted at him to put down the knife. He didn’t, and shots were fired. As he lay dying on the floor of the streetcar, one officer went in and tasered him.

The videos that have been released by members of the public who were present make no doubt about what happened. Sammy endangered no one as he stood alone in the car. One officer, Const. James Forcillo, has been charged with second-degree murder in the case.

But before that happened, none of our political leaders had been willing to voice what most members of the public think. None have said that what happened was wrong and that it should never happen again. From Mayor Rob Ford — silence. From other members of the executive committee — silence. The only councillor to say that she thought it was wrong was Janet Davis.

Police Chief Bill Blair, appearing at a media event a few days after the shooting, was clearly upset but said little more than that he would do a thorough investigation to determine if police policy and procedures were followed.

The chair of the Toronto Police Services Board, Alok Mukherjee, wrote an opinion piece in the Globe and Mail a week later in which he says he wants an answer to the question “How could this happen?” He’s being naive. It happened because this is police policy.

After Michael Eligon was killed by police near the Toronto East General Hospital in February of 2012, Chief Blair did a thorough review of the police policy and practice that led to this death of a person in mental crisis. Many (including the organization of which I am a part, Toronto Police Accountability Coalition) argued for a change in police practice so that, when the police have to deal with someone in crisis, the first responders would be those specially trained in de-escalation, much as those called to respond to hostage takings are expert negotiators.

But when the chief reported in April of this year, he rejected that idea and said the police were doing an excellent job and were well trained. He recommended no substantial change, and Mr. Mukherjee and the other members of the board endorsed his report on April 25. The very next day, a mentally ill person was shot and killed by Toronto police, then six weeks later, another person — and now Sammy Yatim, the third person in mental crisis killed by Toronto police in three months.

Chief Blair and Mr. Mukherjee didn’t comment on the other two deaths, but maybe the clear video evidence forced their hand this time, even though neither was willing to say police policy and practice is wrong. In mid-August, the Police Services Board issued a statement indicating they were concerned with various police practices (claiming, “The Police Services Act imposes certain legal constraints on our ability to ensure accountability,” which is a bizarre conclusion), but the statement never says that what happened was wrong.

In my opinion, the second degree murder charge against the officer who fired the nine shots at Sammy Yatim is beside the point. The result of this charge, whether conviction or acquittal, will not force the Board and the police service to adopt policies and practices which protect those in mental crisis.

If our leaders won’t confront the reality of the situation, how will change happen? In the past two years, six people in mental crisis have died at the hands of Toronto police. Leaders speaking out could change that.

I know that from personal experience. In the fall of 1979, police shot and killed Albert Johnson, who may have been mentally ill. He was the eighth person to be killed by Toronto police in 13 months. I was mayor at the time and I spoke out. I was strongly criticized by the Metro chair, Paul Godfrey; by the police chief; and by the police association. I was called a cop hater because I asked for change.

But here’s the good part: for the next 16 months, Toronto police did not kill a single person. My speaking out set the tone. If Mayor Ford, Chief Blair and Mr. Mukherjee had spoken out and said this was wrong, I have no question it would have saved the lives of those in mental crisis.

The job of politicians is not to get re-elected, but to do the right thing.

Post City Magazines columnist John Sewell is a former mayor of Toronto and the author of a number of urban planning books, including The Shape of Suburbs.

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