Now we know what public supervision of our police forces will look like for the future, and it is not the Police Services Board. It will require the public’s constant video surveillance of the police as well as persistent public protest. How else to explain the unusual speed with which the Special Investigations Unit (SIU) decided to lay the charge of second degree murder against the police officer who allegedly fired nine bullets at 17-year-old Sammy Yatim.
That is a serious charge. Second degree murder is the charge when a person is alleged to have successfully carried out a more or less spontaneous action with the clear intent to cause death.
What led to the SIU’s decision? Was it the continued public outcry, especially from those who marched in protest and held vigils? Was it media attention? Was it that this particular police shooting was the tipping point? Was it the video of the shooting viewed close to two million times on video uploaded to YouTube?
Since its establishment in 1990, the SIU has laid charges in over 80 cases out of more than 3300 investigations. Only six have been murder charges of one type or another. In only one case was the officer found guilty, however the decision was later overturned. In fact, for the first six years of its existence, no charges were laid against officers, who routinely frustrate SIU procedure.
It is important to note that the SIU came about as the result of the previous Task Force on Race Relations and Policing and the activist voices in the Black community, led notably by Dudley Laws and the Black Action Defence Committee. From that task force came the understanding that the public does not trust police to investigate themselves when incidents such as fatalities involving the police occur.
Recall Lester Donaldson and Wade Lawson. The police shooting death in 1988 of Lester Donaldson, 44, while he was having a meal at his home in a rooming house, led to charges against police officer William Deviney. That same year Lawson, 17, was shot in the back of his head while joyriding in a stolen vehicle. Two police officers were charged in that killing. In both cases the police officers were found not guilty. In Lawson’s case, a jury that did not include any visible minorities made the decision.
The shooting deaths of Donaldson and Lawson did not have video evidence going into court. But there was video evidence of what happened to Said Jama Jama in 2002 outside a coffee shop. Before the video – which was taped by Ottawa tourists as they observed Jama Jama being assaulted by police officers – came to light, the officers involved alleged that Jama Jama assaulted them. Their statements did not include the fact that they assaulted him. Without that video evidence Jama Jama would have faced jail time and later deportation.
This growing trend of recording police assaults and shootings had its genesis in the 1991 recording of the brutal beating of Rodney King by officers of the Los Angeles Police Department. Those officers were found not guilty after being taken through the justice system. But the aftermath was no small matter. South Central Los Angeles burned for days with the fury of African-Americans who had long suffered unequal treatment by the LAPD. That fury also hit Toronto. Typically, investigations and studies followed. Yet, police handling of crisis situations have not changed.
Reports are that Yatim’s last moments inside a streetcar that had emptied of passengers when he began to act strangely came within less than five minutes of police arriving on the scene. Certainly, it would have taken more than five minutes to calm a person in crisis. Where is police training on how to deescalate situations such as this?
The shooting death of Yatim, as with all similar incidents, really points to a culture within our police force that allows an individual officer to deem it acceptable, while he is surrounded by 22 fellow officers, to carry out such actions.
The larger problem here is the way men and women are trained as police officers to perceive and respond to social disruptions. That is what must change. Charging officers after the fact has not made a difference, especially when they know that most likely they will avoid any kind of punishment.
However, each time something like this happens, more damage is done to the public’s trust in those authorized to serve and protect.