Is it possible, in the midst of something so ugly and so public as the shooting of Sammy Yatim on the Dundas streetcar last weekend, to keep our wits about us? To set aside our gut reactions and think rationally about how to deal with this? How we can serve justice? How we can prevent something like it from happening again?
After all, wasn’t it the failure of two people—first Yatim, then a police officer—to keep their heads about them that led us to where we are now?
Why do those decrying his death, marching in the streets accusing “pigs” on the police force of “murder,” feel the need to portray Yatim as an innocent child? Didn’t the 18-year-old, according to a witness, terrorize a streetcar full of people with “a knife in one hand and his penis in the other?” Isn’t that the behaviour of someone who is, at least temporarily, deranged? And possibly dangerous? In order to find his death saddening, or maddening, do we need to pretend he didn’t initiate a situation that was very likely to end badly?
But man, oh man, did it need to end this badly? Have you seen the videos, in which Yatim is very clearly alone inside the streetcar, its doors surrounded by cops, many with their guns drawn? Did you hear him shouting obscenities while police repeatedly ordered him to put the knife down? Why did none of those officers attempt to reason with him, or offer him some sympathy, or negotiate with him? Is it possible that they did so before the cameras started rolling?
Could they not have pushed the exterior door-close button—as virtually everyone who rides the TTC has regularly seen drivers do—and waited to see if he would calm down or listen to reason while trapped inside? Or, did the police not have access to those giant shields and clubs used during riots to better protect themselves while subduing him? Could they not have used rubber bullets, or pepper spray, or a water cannon? Weren’t there 23 of them, trained and armed, outside the vehicle, against this single teenager with a small knife? Could they not have Tasered him before he’d been shot nine times, instead of after?
Is it too easy for us, with the benefit of hindsight, watching the video in enhanced slow motion, to ask such questions? Can any of us put ourselves inside the head of the officer who shot at Yatim nine times, firing six bullets even after the young man had fallen to the ground? What did he see? Did it appear that Yatim was about to charge? Did he seem to be reaching for something? In those crucial seconds before he fired, was the officer afraid for his own life? Was he imagining his own family attending a grim march in the streets in the near future?
Is it even fair to ask how each of us would have responded in the same situation? After all, isn’t this a police officer, charged with protecting us, allowed to carry a gun and authorized to use it responsibly? Isn’t he trained to deal with just this kind of thing? But did that training properly prepare him to assess a threat like the one Yatim presented?
Aren’t these questions that the Special Investigations Unit should answer? But can we expect them to do so, when after more than 3,000 investigations, they have sent only three officers to jail? (Isn’t that a conviction rate that, when rounded to the nearest whole number, is approximately zero?) Haven’t we recently seen police refuse to cooperate as witnesses in the G20 investigation, and the SIU essentially responds by throwing up its hands in powerless frustration? Didn’t the SIU just last year clear two officers who shot men armed only with scissors?
Is this time going to be different, now that Police Chief Bill Blair has publicly pledged his own concern, his cooperation with the investigation, and his own resolve to reform procedures in the aftermath of this shooting?
Is it reasonable, if we keep our wits about us and look at this rationally, to expect real results this time? And if we keep asking questions, can we force those responsible to provide answers? Accountability? Change? Justice?