Saba Ahmad is a Litigator working on environmental, administrative and commercial matters in Toronto. Learn more at www.sabaahmad.com
When I was in law school, we learned that disproportionate responses were bad. We learned about it in Criminal Law, when self-defence was claimed. Was the defendant really in imminent danger? If not, the defence could fail.
It was interesting to consider thought experiments about the defendant’s subjective belief as compared to what a reasonable observer would conclude.
We learned about disproportionate responses with respect to mitigation of damages. The law didn’t require you to use heroic efforts to avoid a loss. So too with the law of negligence — you don’t have to build a perfect fence to keep kids away from your pool – and you don’t have to be a hero and rush into an ocean to save some fool who miscalculated risky waves.
But a lot of these standards – and society’s expectations – can “ratchet up” if you have special skills or training. If you’re a lifeguard, you actually do have to be a hero and save fools sometimes.
It’s a point I keep in mind as I teach my own children how to behave. It’s a common refrain at my house: “Your response was disproportionate! That’s why you’re in trouble.”
Can my twelve-year-old really appreciate what a minimally obtrusive response is? He is just a kid after all. I often remind myself to cut him some slack.
And then I come to the case of Sammy Yatim.
I’ve heard the pleas that we should withhold judging the officer involved.
But I just can’t.
And if you’re reading this, I expect you can’t either. Can anyone imagine a set of facts that would justify the death of Sammy Yatim?
Did the officer fear that Sammy Yatim had a hidden knife-throwing skill, that he would imminently employ to kill him or one of the bystanders?
Even if we assume that was the fear – everyone could have been instructed to back off.
Sammy Yatim was alone in a vehicle – and not in striking distance of anyone.
I could forgive a fidgety bus driver if he had over-reacted somehow. A driver isn’t expected to be able to handle armed youths behaving strangely.
We entrust that job to specially trained police officers. It’s a hard job to get. There’s a lot of testing (physical and psychological) and if you’re qualified, police forces train and educate you to handle stressful and dangerous situations. There’s a reason we pay officers like James Forcillo $106k per year.
But what did we get for our money in this case? It seemed all the civilians knew what to do – back off, and give the kid some space.
Then officers showed up – and they chose to engage. They provoked.
It did not immediately work.
They became impatient. And one of them fired – over and over again.
And the life of an 18 year old was cut short. Just barely a man. Never allowed to learn what happens if you mess up.
I shake my head that this happened in my city – on the streetcar my kids used earlier that day.
But yes – we are not to pre-judge. Forgive me if I find it hard not to wish we reach a criminal conviction in this case – swiftly. From what I’ve read in the papers, it sounds like plain old murder to me.