Opinions and Current Issues Blog

Saba Ahmad is a Litigator working on environmental, administrative and commercial matters in Toronto. Learn more at www.sabaahmad.com

Thoughts on Sammy Yatim #topoli #onpoli

Photo Credit: Toronto Star

Photo Credit: Toronto Star

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.

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26 comments on “Thoughts on Sammy Yatim #topoli #onpoli

  1. Steve
    August 6, 2013

    So you have, “heard the pleas that we should withhold judging the officer involved.”

    Until all the facts are in and the investigation has been completed. But you can’t? That is very unfortunate.

    You asked, “Can anyone imagine a set of facts that would justify the death of Sammy Yatim?”

    You don’t know all the facts! All you know is what’s you’ve heard on TV, radio, newspapers, and the video’s from youtube.

    You sarcastically question what the officer may have been thinking, observing, and feared as he attempted to control what appeared to be an uncontrollable young man. What police training have you had? Have you ever walked in the shoes of a law enforcement officer? Do you know how far away Yatim was from the officer? Have you heard of the 21 foot rule or seen what a knife can do to a man, woman, or child in seconds?

    I can tell you Ms. Ahmad, the officer was in fear. Any law enforcement officer confronting a armed individual is in fear for his or her life.

    You then start to second guess in your blog the officers: they could have been instructed to “back off.” Yatim was “alone in a vehicle” and “not in striking distance of anyone.” How do you know that? Ms. Ahmad, it was an unfolding situation!

    I could go on and on regarding this blog. You may have noticed my comments are limited to respectful commentary and nothing about what happened. Except for this: From my review of both videos, Yatim was moving forward after being told numerious times to drop the knife. Officers are not trained to disarm someone brandishing a knife. From my review of the videos, and the videos only; no interviews of witnesses, no crime scene examination, etc, the first three shots APPEAR on its face to be justified.

    Thank you in advance for reading this.

    Steve

    • sabaahmad
      August 6, 2013

      Thanks for your feedback. When I wrote my blog, I wondered if anyone could see it as you apparently do.

      I’m usually able to withhold judgment, but in this case, we have seen video and read eyewitness accounts. If the officer felt afraid for his life, I do not think that was reasonable, based on what I’ve seen. There was a barrier surrounding Yatim, save an open door.

      If I were a judge, I would work very hard to avoid pre-judging. I would suspend my analysis until all the evidence was in. But since I’m not a judge, I have the luxury of trying to piece it all together and ask myself if there is anything that would justify the result here.

      I’m sorry to say that nothing you’ve written leads me to change my view. I don’t think that level of force was warranted. You and I both feel comfortable pre-judging the situation. We see it differently, that’s all.

      I feel tremendous respect for the men and women who risk their lives to protect people like me. I think many of them – most of them – know how to keep calm when faced with people like Sammy Yatim. It seems Officer Forcillo didn’t keep his cool – and that’s as charitable a gloss I can put on it given what we know about the verbal exchange just before shots were fired.

      I don’t know if by “justified” you mean to say his shots were “necessary” to protect life. I think a police officer should only fire in the latter case.

      It is unfortunate for Officer Forcillo’s reputation that people find it hard to defer judgment. But my tears are reserved for his victim – a young man who didn’t even achieve half my years.

      • Steve
        August 6, 2013

        I saw it on Tweeter! I won’t try to answer everything you just wrote. What I mean by justified is to protect his life and others. Yatim was moving forward. I won’t try to explain in detail, but as law enforcement officer going on my 30th year both local law enforcement and federal law enforcement (USA) and having investigated police shooting for 11 years what I saw on video and video only, Yatim was moving forward and the first 3 shoots were justified. Please look up knife attacks and the 21 foot rule which law enforcement is trained. I’m happy to hear that you respect law enforcement. I respect attorney’s, but would never tell them how to do their jobs or second guess; I’ve never been to law school! You have the right to your opinion, but wait for the investigation. The officer deserves at least that much respect.

        Thanks again

        Steve

  2. sabaahmad
    August 6, 2013

    You know I looked up the 21 foot rule – thanks very much! That might explain why Officer Forcillo shot. Many officers have misinterpreted the rule to mean that shooting is justified within 21 feet of a suspect armed with a knife. But this article says that isn’t the case – lunging would be required to create an actual risk of death if the officer’s gun is drawn. http://www.policeone.com/edged-weapons/articles/102828-Edged-Weapon-Defense-Is-or-was-the-21-foot-rule-valid-Part-1/

  3. Samantha
    August 6, 2013

    Steve says he won’t explain in detail, but we are starved for details in this case. What is the protocol when a crazed knife-wielding suspect is not listening to orders to “drop the weapon” and the suspect does not lunge but simply keeps holding it? I took it for granted that at that moment the next step is not “shoot dead” but, warning shot maybe?(or Taser), then, yes, disarming action, like shooting in the leg and then pouncing on them.

    I am a little alarmed that cops are not trained to disarm. Why not? Why is Shoot to Kill the very next move? Nurses in psych wards have to disarm and restrain dangerous (sometimes armed) patients all the time, and they manage to do it with no deadly force. Can’t police get the same training as nurses when it comes to subduing disturbed individuals? People have been begging for this for years and years, and as the parent of a young child with a disorder that can get him into a similar situation, I am quite concerned.

    If the first three shots were justified, does that mean we can always expect that a cop is to shoot dead any person who moves toward them in a threatening way? I wasn’t aware of that. But that certainly explains why cops have killed too many mentally disturbed (and often unarmed) people. And in this case we have so much more than those first three shots. The action that followed paints a picture of hysterical, panicked amateurs…not exactly reassuring.

    I completely believe that Forcillo was in real fear. I think many, many officers go around in fear. Just as social services employees think welfare fraud is higher than it is, and medical students think they have every disease they are studying, police officers understandably walk around with greater suspicion and fear due to what they have learned and experienced.

    Cops often get killed, so they do walk around fearing they will be next. That is not my problem, it’s the cop’s problem and it affects their judgement.

    I just hope it goes to court.

  4. Steve
    August 6, 2013

    LOL… I don’t mean to “laugh out loud” at a very serious case, but you just did what every good lawyer tries to do, “lunging would be required…” It’s not lost on me that you left something out! The way I read the article related to an officers use of deadly force, the passage you rely on actually said in part:

    “until he takes the first overt action in furtherance of intention–like starting to rush or lunge toward the officer with intent to do harm. Even then there may be factors besides distance that influence a force decision.”

    You left out starting to rush; that’s just what Yatim did. And other factors in the officers mind must be taken into account. What was Yaitm saying to the officer during their verbal exchange? We don’t know, but that is one of the factors the author is taking about. So lunging can not be used in a vacuum. I would add that Yatim was closer than 21 foot.

    I hope you read the article I sent you over twitter. It actually talks about officers need more training dealing with alleged mentally ill subjects.

    • Steve
      August 6, 2013

      Saba.. I’ve seen the video multiple times. He was moving forward. I understand your point of view, but you are just flat wrong. I have worked murders where a 3 inch knife killed with one stab to the heart; not by a trained assassin but a 15 yoa gang member. Do officer need training in dealing with mentally ill, YES. But currently they are trained to protect their life’s and the life’s of others. It appears to be lost on most that Yatim had a knife and refused to drop it!

  5. sabaahmad
    August 6, 2013

    In fact, it looks like he moves further into the streetcar and the cops are advancing. Why not retreat? They could have set up a perimeter further away from the entry to the vehicle – and waited. Waiting is a very powerful weapon. Yatim had been in the vehicle for a very long time already – if he was starting to come out, it was because of the manner in which he was engaged. It’s because of this video that people are so upset. We can’t see it the way you see it, Steve. Shooting does not look justified.

    • Steve
      August 6, 2013

      We will have to agree to disagree. You’re coming from a lack of experience, I from 30 years of it. The officers were not going to retreat for many reasons; one being if they had lost containment by retreating as you suggest, and Yatim had gotten off the bus and harmed a bystander, lawyer like you would have been saying, “why’d they let him get off the bus?” See the catch 22? Arm chair QBing is very easy from behind your laptop!

  6. Steve
    August 6, 2013

    Hi Samantha, I’ll try to answer some of your questions. Use of Deadly Force is trained according to a use of force continuum. Meaning the use of force necessary to stop a perceived threat. In that continuum of force is the escalation of force. Most officers care gun, extendable weapon and mace. In my opinion the video clearly shows the subject was moving forward toward the officer with a knife. I don’t mean to be sarcastic but this is not tv, or a movie. Officers are not trained to shoot a warning shot, or to shoot in the leg or arm or to shoot the knife out of his hand and are trained to shoot center mass to stop the threat!

  7. sabaahmad
    August 6, 2013

    You raise the interesting point that maybe the problem is police training or protocols. I think a couple of cops with riot gear just outside the door could have protected officers while waiting Yatim out. That’s not protocol. The protocol is to expect the kid to immediately drop the weapon – and if not, shoot to kill. Brutal. In London, England, cops carry no guns. They disarm people with knives all the time. We should research their protocols and maybe adopt some of them.

    • Steve
      August 6, 2013

      Officers don’t roll around town in riot gear; in fact if they did, the general public would not like it, and would be complaining of a police state. That was not an option in this case. It all happened to quickly, in fact the Officer asked for a taser, but it arrived too late. Yes, officers are not trained to deal with the mentally ill; are you willing to pay the price tag for that? The protocol is to shoot to kill, Yes, Yatim had a lot to do with that decision, but people appear to be unwilling to place any responsability on him. I would dispute your claim that British cops going around disarming people wiht knives all the time.

  8. Steve
    August 6, 2013

    Do a google search on “officer stabbed” and see the number of cases that come up!

  9. sabaahmad
    August 6, 2013

    Here are some articles about British cops disarming people with knives. It seems “least use of force” is their MO. That’s what they strive for. We should too.

    As for Yatim’s culpability – yes he behaved in a way that – not surprisingly – got him into trouble. I suspect he was mentally compromised. We may never know. But yes when I’m in some third world countries, I am REALLY careful not to tick off cops.

    I remember a Saudi cop once rough-housing a cab driver who got into an accident with the wrong person. You really don’t want to be provoking law enforcement in most parts of the world.

    I used to think better of Canada. The police officers I knew always struck me as very cool – level-headed. In control. Well-trained. Educated.

    I don’t feel that anymore. I spoke with cops leading up to G20 and I picked up on “hysteria” almost in the voices of a few. It’s like Samantha said – they seem more fearful now. It isn’t helping.

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-21313355

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-leeds-16397209

    http://www.liverpoolecho.co.uk/news/liverpool-news/merseyside-police-taser-12-year-old-girl-4041625

  10. sabaahmad
    August 6, 2013
  11. John M
    August 6, 2013

    Saba, I find this blog entry to be quite hypocritical.

    When the Toronto 18 were arrested, I remember having similar conversations (not just about that particular incident but with other as well) when I in fact had more information than just what was in the paper, and your liberal lawyerly attitude was certainly the opposite of “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.” Sounds like? What’s in the papers? Doesn’t sound like the Saba I’ve spoken to. If you want to discuss the number of times the media have incorrectly reported information… I’m more than happy to do so.

    Your bias is clear from your blog post – this was an officer involved shooting, and as a result you have leaned toward a quick conviction when not all the facts are in. As for the video, I’ve learned not to trust every video I see. Sounds strange right? OK…

    Watch this video:

    Looks like they are shooting some guy just walking away! How could they!!!?

    Now watch this video…

    See why I don’t always trust video? It doesn’t show everything all the time. There are lots more where those came from showing different perspectives and how they change the situation.

    In addition to the comments made by Steve, I would also suggest that you read up on the excellent research done by the Force Science Institute under Dr. Bill Lewinski, Professor Emeritus of the Minnesota State University with respect to knife threats. I’m sure that his name will come up in this case.

    I will go a step farther than Steve (with due respect) and say that after research done by Dr. Lewinski and several unfortunate learning experiences, I know personally of many agencies that have increased the old “21 foot rule” to be even greater… as far as 31 feet, for a number of reasons that I won’t detail here.

    I’ve seen the video. I do have some critique on the situation. Maybe there could have been some other options employed, even by the NON TACTICAL TRAINED members who were present to try and preserve the situation to allow ETF to arrive… but I wasn’t there. We’ve ALL been in situations where we have thought, I should have said this, or I should have done that… imagine how difficult it is to make those decisions when under the extreme duress that these officers were under. Adrenaline pumping, basic motor skills being lost, auditory exclusion, tunnel vision… all NATURAL reactions to a situation like this.

    What I DO NOT like is arm chair quarter backing. I don’t like to do it, and I certainly don’t like it when people who haven’t even had training in this and rely on the CSI’s etc… to start sharing what is at the end of the day an ignorant position based on lack of training or understanding of the training. If we were to be truly fair, officers should be tried by THEIR peers, who’ve had the training and experience. First Nations people’s get new trials based on not having any other FN persons on juries. Military get tried by court martial meaning that other military members make informed decisions. Same should be for police.

    Your bias has also shown in your characterization of the suspect. You make him sound like almost like a child when he was at law and in fact, an adult. An 18 year old knows damn well better than to be pulling knives on a public transport, so he didn’t need any more time to learn what happens when you make that mistake. At 18, unless you’re in a cave… you know that if you pull a knife in public that the police are coming, and if you don’t drop that knife and choose to start moving towards the police… you’re going to get shot. What is he carrying the knife around for? What would cause him to terrorize a group of people just trying to use the train with a knife?

    The police in this instance were responding to a SERIOUS situation. It was there DUTY to as you say “engage” that individual. To me they appeared to be attempting to keep him contained. The officer told him very clearly not to step forward (an attempt to break containment if he left the train) and Yatim was shot not because the officers grew “impatient” but because he disobeyed them and DID step forward. Again, a person armed with a knife IS a serious call. He was given instructions by the officers to NOT STEP FORWARD and they were clear what the consequences would be. This 18 year old MAN made the decision to disregard this and DID move toward the officers. The fact is from the beginning of this incident to its conclusion, Yatim was the one making the decisions. HE decided to pull a knife in public and become a menace. HE decided not to put it down when police arrived, and HE decided to cross the line and move towards the officers after being told specifically not to.

    Fact is, if Yatim had taken any more steps and run off that bus, the officers would have been faced with a threat that was now uncontained and would render their ability to save lives very difficult. Without a clear shot and with bystanders then potentially in the background, the situation could have ended with more loss of life.

    That said, to be fair, even I have some reservations about what happened after the initial shots were fired. I will however, not request a “swift criminal conviction” and wait for the facts and for the officer to articulate his rationale for his actions before jumping to judgement.

    So if you want to be critical, criticize the government who have refused to follow the recommendations of several inquiries thus far and ARM EVERY OFFICER WITH A TASER. It isn’t a cure all solution, but it will help.

    Training for mental illness is something that IS and needs to continue to be delivered and improved upon. What you do need to understand however, is that regardless of the presence, degree etc… of any mental disorder, when an officer is confronted by an armed subject and that subject refuses to lay down that weapon and causes the officer to fear for their own life or that of someone else… you will still end up with dead or seriously injured subjects.

    • Steve
      August 6, 2013

      Awesome John and well said! I would have detailed more, but I have a broken collarbone and I’m not able to type very long. But thank you for taking the time.

  12. John M
    August 6, 2013

    I HATE when people do this… It was THEIR not THERE duty (referring to the police arrival). My mistake…

  13. Steve
    August 6, 2013

    No worries, I have typos all the time! lol…

  14. sabaahmad
    August 6, 2013

    Hi John, you know what’s great about not being a judge? I get to have opinions. What I think isn’t going to affect Officer Forcillo’s future. I do not have an obligation to reserve judgment because I’m a mere civilian.

    I’ve read fresh witness accounts and seen a few videos. In the past, that’s a lot more evidence than most judges had to go by.

    Can I understand that a cop gets fidgety because of the stress of the situation? Yes. Does that make it okay that Sammy Yatim is dead? No.

    Almost every killing is preceded by a stressful situation.

    In this case, training should have kicked in. And a lot of what you’ve written about 21 feet or 31 feet makes sense if there is no barrier between the cop and the suspect. There was only one or two ways out of that streetcar – and those were covered. Yatim didn’t die on the stairs. He was in the streetcar.

    And nine bullets?

    You know what’s possible? It’s possible that it wasn’t “fear” that caused Forcillo to strike – it was anger. He had just been insulted – dared to shoot.

    That one fact is what makes this case different. I expect officers to slough that stuff off.

    Not sure why you see fit to call me a hypocrite. But I promise not to blow you away because of it! 🙂

    • Steve
      August 6, 2013

      Saba… I think what many to include some law enforcement officers are reacting to is the rush to judge this officer before all the facts are in by the local Canadian media and uninformed people that have never done the job of an LEO.

      Of course its not ok that Sammy Yatim is dead. And I’m 90% sure that no one feels worse about it than the officer. But training did kick in Saba, the officer, no matter how much you dislike it, did what he was trained to do. Stop an aggressive individual with a deadly weapon who disregarded numerious commands to drop the deadly weapon. The first three shoots were justified. Without the advanage of further information I can’t say anything about the next six.

      Fear or anger! I don’t know about the anger, but I believe the officer was in fear. I believe it has been reported that the officer said something regarding Yatim not crossing that line, referring to the line between the passenger area and where the bus/street car drives area is. When Yaim crossed that line the three shots rang out!

      What would have happened if Yatim had just dropped the knife?

      I don’t think you’re a hypocrite; you’re just uninformed, but you have the right to be uninformed.

      • sabaahmad
        August 7, 2013

        FYI, my comment was to John. I’m trying to figure out how to disable comments now. Might take me a while to figure it out – bear with me and please let’s end the discussion here. I see no new ground being covered. Best, Saba

  15. samantha
    August 7, 2013

    So, my takeaway is: Cops deal with stress that we cannot comprehend. They make decisions within fractions of a second. They are taught to shoot to kill if they perceive an escalating threat. and then what I’m hearing is: That’s not going to change because it’s impractical, and no cop will ever be accountable if it comes down to a judgement call, which it always will so don’t bother with conjecture.

    I cannot accept that now with an explosion of autism and other mental health cases, that will mean a matching increase in deaths of people who don’t comply with officers when they don’t fully understand the reality of the situation they are in, and that’s just tough because the officers don’t know someone’s history when they are confronted by them.

    I was recently down in Florida and several officers just shot a guy 12 or so times who was holding a BUTTER KNIFE. His wife had called them to try to get him to come home because he was having a mental breakdown. Maybe you’d say “that’s Florida” or maybe if it happened here you’d say “You don’t understand the situation”

    BTW I don’t think cops in Britain are unarmed anymore, I think they all carry guns, no?

    Also regarding all officers having Tasers, how would they possibly pull together the resources for all that training??? (Sorry there goes MY sarcasm…:P)

    The Police are human and they feel sad for the loss of life, and I am a big fan of our LEO’s in general–but we just get a sick feeling that they care more about protecting their culture and covering for each other. We are hungry to be proven wrong and it doesn’t happen. Hey –maybe police should imagine that the suspect in front of them is a cop–would that add more nuance to their reactions?

  16. Samantha
    August 8, 2013

    Steve replied to me with a photo of Sami surrounded by dangerous guns, saying this is who they had to confront that night. That wasn’t true. They confronted a guy who had a knife. They had no idea if he had a house filled with AK-47s or explosives or Cop Killer posters.

    I still believe the police will always side with another officer over a civilian, every time. It’s a harsh accusation, I admit, especially considering my very positive experiences with the police in the past, and my deep admiration for risking their lives to protect us every day, but it is, sadly, my honest opinion and I do want to be proven wrong. I know several police families and I have shared their pain during funerals. And I know they can get stabbed, but it is really hard to see that that was a possibility in this case. There were other cops around, all with guns out, and he was contained.

    I don’t think decisions to fire on suspects are easy or taken lightly, but I do think they are sometimes made in haste out of fear or panic. And I think that was the case here. I do think they have a lot on their shoulders…they have to consider the safety of the people around them and so many other factors…and their training guides them in that moment as best as it can. But surely there are SOME times when bad judgement was used and someone has to be accountable?

    His comment is gone, but in it he still did not address my concerns about the escalation of mental health leading to the escalation of deaths. He invited me to imagine I was in their shoes faced with a threatening suspect ; I never painted a picture of Yatim as a kid or innocent or anything of the sort. I know he was ignoring orders to drop the weapon, and approaching in a threatening way. And maybe, yes, now I understand that Forcillo did exactly as he was trained to do. It still shocks me. But if we never speak up when this happens, if we accepted every single police action and were not allowed to question or protest, we would be like the Syria that Yatim fled.

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