On the Shooting of Sammy Yatim and the James Forcillo Verdict

Today the jury reached a verdict in the trial of Constable James Forcillo in the shooting death of Sammy Yatim. After months in the judicial system and years in the public eye, a jury concluded that Forcillo was not guilty of second-degree murder or manslaughter.

Those who were expecting otherwise may have been surprised at this, yet they should be a rare few. It goes without saying that to find those who enforce our laws guilty of breaking them would shake the public's faith in its own security. Any country that saw its law enforcement agents convicted of murder would be dealing with a gross disparity between the quality of their courts and the quality of their policing systems.

This is why the fact that Forcillo was found guilty of attempted murder is such a surprise. Not because the man he shot was killed by the bullets he fired (making the "attempted murder" charge appear somewhat murky in a literal sense, if not a legal one), but because it shows that our society is progressive enough to recognize its own flaws. Forcillo's lawyers seem unable to see it from this angle, but they are obviously biased. To admit that their client may have been guilty to any extent would only hurt his case.

It is important to note that this was a trial of two incidents. The first concerned the events that began with Yatim brandishing a switchblade on a TTC streetcar and threatening passengers, and ended with him shot three times and lying on the floor of the vehicle. The second incident was of the shots that followed, when Forcillo saw his suspect has been hit and the knife dropped, only to shoot Yatim another five times. There may have only been a second or two between these volleys of shots, but it was enough time for Forcillo to register that his life was no longer in imminent danger.

Forcillo was found not criminally at fault for shooting Yatim those first three times. The defence that he deemed that his life was being threatened was sufficient. Never mind that the man he shot was metres away and holding a switchblade likely no more than four inches in length. Never mind that the man was not physically imposing, was in a confined space, and was alone and outnumbered. And never mind that the man was an 18-year-old, his mind addled by drugs, who was offered no options between a demand to drop his knife and a hail of bullets.

The jury found that the second set of shots constituted a criminal act, and sentencing has yet to be decided. Of course, there will be appeals by Forcillo and his team of lawyers, so the public will have to wait weeks if not months to learn of Forcillo's fate.

In the meantime those who support either side will feel that justice has not been served. Yatim's family certainly would not want Forcillo walking free (and on paid suspension) after the jury had reached its verdict, while Forcillo and his legal team expressed disappointment that he was only acquitted of shooting a teenager three times.

It has been said that this case has cast a chill over Toronto Police Services. That can be considered a good thing. Perhaps in the future cooler heads will prevail and more measures of de-escalation will be worked into police training and made available. Until then, the discussion over acceptable force by police and how they should handle those in mental crisis will continue.