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Sammy Yatim’s choices led to his death

2013-08-01T08:10:03+00:00

Most Canadian news doesn’t penetrate the celebrity-obsessed media bubble in the United States, and this story didn’t either, until social-media-fueled protests got the media’s attention.

Early Saturday morning on July 27 in Toronto, Canada, eighteen-year-old Sammy Yatim, a Syrian immigrant who arrived 5 years ago, pulled out a knife and threatened passengers on a Dundas Street West streetcar, just north of Trinity Bellwoods Park. Witnesses said he exposed himself also.

The driver evacuated everyone off of the streetcar, and police were on the scene within two minutes. Within ten minutes, there were 22 officers on the scene.

The police ordered him many times to drop the knife. “You’re a fucking pussy,” Yatim replied. The standoff continued for several minutes until Yatim took a step toward the officers, still holding the knife. One of them, Constable James Forcillo (a six-year veteran of the force), fired three shots, knocking Yatim down, then fired six more shots. Officers continued to yell at Yatim to drop the knife (which apparently he hadn’t done). Another officer tased him. Then it was over. The whole incident lasted ten minutes from beginning to end, and was videoed by more than one bystander, who then immediately posted it on YouTube. Yatim was pronounced dead on arrival at St. Michael’s Hospital nearby. A decent split-screen video of the incident (security camera footage plus a bystander’s cellphone) is here.

Small but well-publicized protests against the Toronto police have been organized in recent days through social media. “He was just a kid,” seems to be the agitators’ refrain.

Some things to consider:

  • Yatim got on the streetcar and threatened the passengers with a knife. That’s what started the incident.
  • Yatim’s behavior was erratic, like he wasn’t “mentally present,” said witnesses. I presume he was on drugs, but the investigation being conducted will no doubt clarify that.
  • Yatim refused to obey the police’s repeated commands to drop the knife. He taunted and insulted the officers instead.
  • Officers are trained to respond to a threat, and to maintain their own safety as much as possible. The knife was a threat. Studies have shown that a knife-wielding assailant can move 7 meters in 1.5 seconds, which is roughly the distance Yatim was from the officers, and a knife-wielding person can kill or injure a person who is armed with a gun before that person can even react. So the “he only had a knife” excuse for why officers should not have shot Yatim is not valid, since a police officer armed with a gun can still be injured or killed by a person wielding a knife.
  • The only reason why this incident is getting any attention is because of the YouTube videos. Incidents like these happen every day somewhere in the United States, but Canada’s relatively low crime rate makes the Yatim incident seem worse because it’s relatively rare for Canada. (Nice stats page from Toronto Police here, similar stats page from Detroit here. A nice crime map of Toronto here.)
  • Had Yatim bothered to follow any of these five simple rules for interacting with the police, he would certainly be alive today. Canadian police are uniformly polite and patient, even to a fault, in my alien opinion. Had Yatim challenged the police in Denver or New Orleans or St. Louis, for example, the incident would have been over in 30 seconds, and Yatim would still be dead, only with many more holes in him.
  • Torontonians should be pleased that they have such a heavy police presence that they could have 22 officers on the scene in ten minutes. In most American cities and towns, such incidents play out with only one or two police officers on the scene (or none, and an armed citizen would have had to shoot Yatim instead). I’m sure officers everywhere would appreciate the amount of backup that their Toronto counterparts have.

In the wake of the shooting, Constable Forcillo has been suspended, and the Ontario Special Investigations Unit is reviewing the incident.

Could the police have used other means to subdue Yatim? Certainly, if they had been available… stun grenades, tear gas, or beanbag rounds would have been effective, if they had been available. The investigation will determine that.

It’s easy to play “armchair quarterback” and second-guess the police and their actions that night, but in the end, the officers had to make a split-second decision to defend themselves against a perceived threat from Yatim. Yatim had plenty of chances to defuse the situation, and he only made it worse. Yes, his death was unfortunate. Yes, there were probably other ways the incident could have gone differently.

But Yatim’s choices were his to make. His choices led to his death.

People need to remember: when dealing with the police, don’t make the same choices Yatim made.

5 Comments
  1. Sweetie Pie permalink
    2013-08-08T07:25:37+00:00 07:25

    Don’t they call this “suicide by cop”?

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    • 2013-08-08T14:46:12+00:00 14:46

      Yes, they do! Although it wasn’t clear if he had a death wish, or if he was just stupid.

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      • Sweetie Pie permalink
        2013-08-08T16:19:59+00:00 16:19

        They kinda go together – with the exception of depression. In my opinion,

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  2. partner22 permalink
    2013-08-01T10:19:29+00:00 10:19

    Great article, I think we need to educate kids so they know the consequences of their actions. If they don’t obey the police, they will be killed. Please join me in spreading the word that cops kill here if you disobey them

    Like

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