Sammy Yatim: It’s difficult to second-guess the actions of the Toronto cops

Thomas Bink
Sammy Yatim: It’s difficult to second-guess the actions of the Toronto cops

Suicide by cop.

A phenomenon not even mentioned until a few years back, but one in which an individual either armed (or apparently armed) assaults police/security officers and stimulates a lethal response.

That is not to say that 18-year-old Sammy Yatim was deliberately seeking to die. On the other hand, it is difficult to determine retrospectively (even with videos of the incident) what he was seeking. Reportedly, with penis in one hand and a knife in the other, he threatened a streetcar full of passengers until the driver stopped, the doors opened, and those threatened evacuated with alacrity. Shortly thereafter, Toronto police arrived and with dispatch pumped nine bullets into Sammy converting him into history.

And hence transmuted the event into vigorous second-guessing and speculation.

Was Sammy Yatim suicidal? Was he merely a troubled youth? Was he indulging in some illegal mind-altering substance that transmuted a sweet, loving choirboy equivalent (as are all those in the subsequent words of family/friends) into someone likely willing to decapitate a streetcar passenger unfortunate enough to fall into his clutches?

Question Period persists; Answer Period is inconclusive.

What we do know is that Toronto police apparently did not attempt to “talk him down” by seeking one or another crisis intervention specialists ostensibly trained to address such challenged and challenging individuals. Moreover, there didn’t appear to be any imperative for lethal action. Sammy wasn’t holding anyone hostage, he was isolated in a streetcar, he wasn’t charging the door attempting exit, and his potential victims appeared limited to himself.

One has to believe that a major metropolis such as Toronto has protocols to address a wide array of criminal activity: hostage takings, street demonstrators, high-speed vehicle pursuits, robberies, inebriated individuals urinating against wall … And what tactics and weapons to employ when facing these scenarios. But the breakdown appears total — a variety of videos show a phalanx of police around the street car doing nothing more sophisticated than yelling “Drop the knife.”

In an obscene way, it reminds one of the final sequence of Bonny and Clyde in which they and their automobile are shot to shreds in what seemed to be endless volleys of gunfire. At the time, it led me to mutter, “Poor fire control.” And likewise, the nine shots fired into Sammy Yatim suggests a total lack of training, generating disproportionate response to a threat environment nowhere commensurate with the force employed. And reportedly, at the end, Yatim is also struck by a taser — almost akin to adding insult to injury.

Also in a strange way, it is because such an event is so unlikely, indeed, so “un-Canadian” (and for that matter “un-American”) that it has received heavy-duty summer media attention. It is also reminiscent of the 1999 case in which four NYC police fired 41 shots at an unarmed, West African immigrant with no criminal record. They too both lacked fire control (only 19 hits), claiming that when he pulled out identification, they thought it was a gun. They were acquitted.

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The more serious societal question is how one responds to individuals who are threatening and/or out of control. For decades, police with billy clubs moved in and beat the offender to a pulp. Then there were a variety of more humane choke holds that too frequently proved fatal. But getting close-in physical with a criminal has potentially high costs; being battered in a slugging match with a maniacal, PCP-enhanced offender is hardly pleasant, and being bitten by an HIV positive individual prospectively even less pleasant.

Thus the search for technological “fixes.” For a generation, these have been pepper spray and tasers, providing stand-off mechanisms to incapacitate an offender. That is until pepper spray was shown not to stop a large violent individual charging a security officer and the taser, which is subject both to malfunctions and inadequate for stopping an individual stratospherically high on drugs, developed a bad reputation after the 2007 fatal tasering a confused/demented Polish immigrant in the Vancouver airport.

So where are we in official “use of force” terms? Back to square one, using firearms with shoot-to-kill tactics deliberately designed to prevent hostile response by individuals being shot?

But those officers in blue go in harm’s way, potentially facing unlimited liability in the course of their duties. It is hard to second guess their decisions, even when the decisions seem gruesomely wrong. Bet on acquittals for the officers involved.

David T. Jones is a retired State Department Senior Foreign Service Career Officer and a frequent contributor to American Diplomacy. During a career that spanned over 30 years, he concentrated on politico-military issues, serving for the Army Chief of Staff. He is co-author of Uneasy Neighbor(u)rs, a study of American-Canadian bilateral concerns and has published several hundred articles, columns, and reviews on U.S. - Canadian bilateral issues and general foreign policy.