The tragic news of Sammy Yatim's unnecessary death at the hands of the Toronto police Friday night has sparked a much needed debate regarding the use of excessive force by police in the mainstream media.
Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair announced that the "public has every right to be concerned" about the events which unfolded on the 505 streetcar, and the he would be conducing his own investigation in addition to the one being done by the Special Investigations Unit (SIU).
While the public has every right to be deeply concerned about the brazen and seemingly uncontrolled nature of the police actions which led to Sammy’s death -- they should also be concerned with the fact that this is not an isolated incident. While the Chief's words are meant to restore public trust in the police, the reality is that the police rarely if ever hold their own accountable for actions that result in death, bodily harm or misconduct. That needs to change. Now.
A first place to start would be a complete overhauling of the SIU. As it stands right now the SIU is a fraud. On paper the SIU is a "civilian law enforcement agency independent of the police. While the Unit is an agency of the Ministry of the Attorney General, it maintains an arm's length relationship with the Government of Ontario in its operations. The SIU's investigations and decisions are also independent of the government."
According to the SIU website, "When police officers are involved in incidents where someone has been seriously injured, dies or alleges sexual assault, the SIU has the statutory mandate to conduct independent investigations to determine whether a criminal offence took place. The effective fulfilment of this mandate, with all of its associated challenges, remains critical to fostering public confidence in policing in the province by ensuring thorough and independent investigations that stand up to public scrutiny."
Yet in direct contradiction to its mandate, as stated on the website for the Attorney General of Ontario, the vast majority of hires within the SIU are retired police officers from across Ontario and the RCMP. As of 2010, 47 of its 54 investigators are former police officers. This is hardly an example of an independent agency.
Furthermore, a December 2011 report from the Ontario Ombudsman/s Office titled Oversight Undermined highlighted the problems of "including endemic delays and a lack of rigour in SIU investigations, a reluctance to insist on police co-operation, and an internal culture overly influenced by a preponderance of ex-police officers among its staff … Transparency was also missing in action, as SIU reports and significant policy issues remained hidden from public view."
In 2010 a series of articles in the Toronto Star surrounding the SIU and cases of police brutality concluded that "Ontario's criminal justice system heavily favours police and gives officers breaks at every turn -- from the SIU, which hardly ever charges officers, to prosecutors, juries and judges. Where civilians causing similar damage are typically prosecuted, cops walk."
While the killing of Yatim was perhaps more brazen than any other Toronto police killing in recent memory, it is arguably only due to the eyewitness cell phone videos which have the potential to hold the police accountable for their deadly reaction. However, when looking the comprehensive list of killings by police and the SIU ruling in Toronto's African community complied by Dr. Ajamu Nangwaya, it does not inspire hope in the system as it is currently comprised.
In cases without such videos, young men like Junior Manon met their death at the hands of the Toronto police -- only to be victimized once again by having his killers walk free. In the case of Manon, after a brief chase he was beaten by police and was pronounced dead on the scene due to suffocation. Despite the testimony of eyewitnesses and even the police themselves, they were acquitted and the death was ruled as an "accident."
Such outcomes are very common, as revealed by the Toronto Star, since the creation of the SIU in 1990, it "has conducted at least 3,400 investigations and laid criminal charges after only 95 of them … only 16 officers have been convicted of a crime. Only three have seen the inside of a jail."
The 2011 Ombudsman's report went on to state, "However, historically, the SIU's job has been particularly challenging as a result of ingrained police resistance to its authority and the reluctance of successive governments to adopt measures that might be viewed as unpalatable by Ontario’s policing community."
In other words, the police believe themselves to be above the law. They recognize no authority other than their own. When it comes to the actions of the SIU, it routinely reinforces this corrupt practice and puts the public at risk.
Thus, all of this shows a clear double standard when it comes to the behaviour of the Toronto police. A crime is not a crime if it is carried out by a member of the Toronto police -- it is all too often excused as a mistake, accident or exception circumstance with the help of the judicial system.
If Chief Bill Blair really wants to inspire public confidence in the police, he cannot allow his force to murder those they are mandated to protect -- or beat and illegally imprison those who protest for social justice, as was the case with the G20.
In closing, police are not the only ones which are capable of conducting investigations. Indeed, the Ombudsman's office has criticized the police record of investigating their own is criticized as being below standard.
Within the general public there are numerous capable individuals from law, academia, community organizations, the media and more who can serve on such panels and turn the SIU into a tool for justice which polices the police and holds them accountable for the actions.
Perhaps only then police will think twice before emptying nine shots into an 18-year-old who posed no threat to them. It is something that is owed to Sammy, and all other victims of police violence.
Kevin Edmonds is a writer and activist based in Toronto.
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