TORONTO – The family of a young man who died after being shot by police on a Toronto streetcar called it a “tragedy for all involved” and said they hold no ill will against the thousands of officers who protect the public every day.
Sammy Yatim, 18, died early Saturday morning in what the Special Investigations Unit called an “interaction” with police, which was captured on surveillance and cellphone video. Yatim can be seen on video pacing the empty streetcar as shouts of “drop the knife” are heard.
Nine shots can be heard on the bystander video, first three shots in succession then six more after a pause of about six seconds. Yatim was shot multiple times, the SIU has said.
Yatim’s family released a statement Tuesday thanking Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair for reaching out to them and vowing to co-operate with the SIU’s probe.
“We expect that this matter will be investigated with the fullest measure of the law, so that incidents like this can be better managed and de-escalated before such extreme use of force is ever exercised again,” the family said.
“We want to be clear that we do not hold any ill will against the thousands of police officers who work to protect us each day. This is a tragedy for all involved.”
Yatim, wearing what appears to be white pants, can be seen in security camera footage — obtained by Global News — dropping to the ground after the initial volley of shots.
The security video has no audio, but when synced with a cellphone video taken by a bystander, it appears to show that Yatim is still on the ground, his leg moving slightly, as six more shots are fired.
Police are then seen boarding the streetcar and the sound of a Taser can be heard. The SIU confirmed a conducted energy weapon was also used.
The SIU has designated one subject officer and 22 witness officers. The Toronto Police Association’s president has said the officer involved in the incident is “devastated.”
Mike McCormack said the public shouldn’t jump to conclusions before investigators collect all the facts surrounding the shooting.
The officer was identified late Tuesday as Const. James Forcillo by his lawyer, Peter Brauti, who often defends police.
Brauti said he is reviewing the case and has not yet decided whether to recommend Forcillo submit to an SIU interview.
Police designated as subject officers in SIU investigations can exercise a right not to be interviewed.
In addition to the SIU investigation, Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair has said his office will do a review.
Ontario’s ombudsman also weighed in on the case, saying his office would be reviewing the incident to determine if it could trigger a wider investigation.
The family, meanwhile, said they are “living a nightmare” from which they can’t seem to wake up.
“The next few months will be very trying for us as our family adjusts to life without Sammy and wades through all the details and decisions that led to this senseless tragedy,” they said in their statement.
They are just trying to “bury this poor kid in peace,” said family friend Joseph Nazar.
Both of Yatim’s parents were out of town when he died, his father on business in Atlanta and his mother visiting Montreal from Syria, where she is a doctor at a children’s hospital, Nazar said.
Yatim’s sister, believed to be about 17 years old, was left to identify her brother’s body, Nazar said.
Toronto Mayor Rob Ford briefly addressed the death Tuesday saying it was “unfortunate,” but he cautioned against a rush to judgment.
“My heart goes out to the family,” he said. “But none of us know the facts.”
Hundreds of people took to the streets Monday with cries of “shame” and brandishing posters that read “protect us from our protectors” as public outrage grew over Yatim’s death.
That mobilization likely wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for the videos, said Abby Deshman, director of the public safety program at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.
“That kind of community outrage, I think, can be directly related to how closely people understand what happened,” she said.
Canadians in general are very trusting of police officers, so when someone involved with police is hurt the public usually assumes police acted rightfully unless there is evidence to the contrary, Deshman said.
“I think what video really does is provide a direct account of what happened that a person can see and really judge for themselves without having to primarily rely on the police officer’s word about what was necessary.”
Rick Parent, a former police officer who teaches police studies at Simon Fraser University, said citizen videos of police incidents can be good, in that they keep police in check.
But, he said, there is a downside too, because there is a temptation to view such videos as the complete picture.
“They don’t always tell the whole picture, but yet we forget that when we see something that is emotional or sensational,” Parent said.
“It does create some misinformation among the public as well because there’s a sense of relying on the video to act as judge, jury and convict the person.”
The case of Robert Dziekanski is often cited as an example of why members of the public filming police interactions enhances accountability.
A video shot by a traveller at Vancouver’s airport and released about a month after Dziekanski’s death appeared to contradict the police version of events about what happened the night the Polish immigrant died after being Tasered.
Four Mounties were charged with perjury for their testimony at an inquiry into Dziekanski’s death. One was acquitted Monday after a judge found it was impossible to say for certain that he worked with his three colleagues to concoct a story about what happened.
That case was unique, Parent said.
“We always tend to go back to the Dziekanski incident, but in fairness the police will make millions and millions of interactions with the public and that was one.”