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What if police officers had approached Sammy Yatim differently?

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Sammy Yatim was killed by a police officer as he wielded a knife on a streetcar. The purpose of this article is to explore other outcomes that might have resulted from different approaches by the police.

There have been a number of suggestions that police officers use verbal de-escalation techniques when confronting people armed with knives or other edged weapons. For example, one of the recommendations of the inquest into the death of O'Brien Christopher-Reid (which concluded in 2007) was that Toronto police place greater emphasis on "de-escalation techniques to include opportunities to initiate soft communication approaches when situations warrant."

The 2014 inquest into the deaths of Reyal Jardine-Douglas, Sylvia Klibingaitis, and Michael Eligon recommended "if the [person] has failed to respond to standard initial police commands (i.e. 'Stop. Police.', 'Police. Don't Move.', and/or 'Drop the Weapon.'), train officers to stop shouting those commands and attempt different defusing communication strategies."

The 2014 report by Justice Iacobucci proposed that police training place more emphasis on various areas, including "highlighting communication and de-escalation as the most important and commonly used skills of the police officer, and the need to adjust communication styles when a person does not understand or cannot comply with instructions."

When evaluating possible police approaches to Yatim it is important to note that there was no one else on the streetcar at the time of the shooting; the situation would have been much more complicated if there had been someone who was being threatened by Yatim.

The communications that did take place between police officers and Sammy Yatim were almost entirely captured by a TTC recording. It began basically as follows:

Officer yells: "Drop the knife. Drop the knife."

Yatim: "No."

Officer yells: "Drop the fuckin' knife."

Yatim: "No".

Other officers yell: "Drop the knife."

Yatim: "You're a fuckin' pussy. And you're a pussy. Everyone's a pussy."

Now let's first recall what actually happened after that exchange and then explore what might have happened had the officers recognized "the need to adjust their communication styles."

What did happen:

Officer yells: "You take one step in this direction and I'll shoot you, I'm telling you right now."

Yatim takes a couple of steps backwards. Other officers yell "Don't move" and "Drop it."

Yatim then takes a couple of steps forward and is shot dead..

What might have happened?:

Officers might have tried "soft communication approaches" at any time during the confrontation. For example, an officer might have asked Yatim "How can I help you?" Or "Is there anyone who can help you?" Or "What is your name?" Or "Why do you call me a pussy?"

No one can know how Yatim would have responded to any such questions. We can, however, make educated guesses. For example:

Officer: "How can I help you?"

Yatim: "You're just a fuckin' pussy."

Officer: " I'd really like to help you. Why are you so angry with me?"

Yatim: "You're a fuckin' pussy, like everyone."

Officer: "I would like to help you."

Yatim: "You're full of shit."

Officer:"Is there anyone who could help?"

Yatim: "There is no one here but pussies. All pussies."

Officer: "Maybe we can get someone else here. Who could help? Want me to get someone?"

In fact, Yatim had earlier asked the streetcar driver for a phone on which to call his father. The police officers were unaware of that fact. But there is a reasonable chance that any person in crisis would, if prompted, suggest someone (a relative, a friend, a psychiatrist, ...) who could help. The fact that Yatim had wanted to contact his father makes the following seem very plausible.

Yatim: "My father. I want to talk to my father."

Officer: "How can I contact your father and ask him to help you out?"

Yatim: "I don't want you to ask him; I wanna talk to him."

Officer: "How can I help to arrange your talking to him?"

Yatim: "Give me a fuckin' phone."

Officer: "Okay, I'll let you use my cell. How can I get it to you?"

Yatim: "Just give it to me."

Officer: "But I don't want to get stabbed by your knife."

Yatim: "I won't stab you."

Officer: "How can I be sure of that?"

Yatim: "I won't stab you."

Officer: "Will you put down the knife?"

Yatim: "No, I'm not falling for that."

Officer: "Okay, why don't you step to the back of the streetcar and I will put the phone on the

front step of the streetcar?"

Yatim: "Okay."

Then Yatim phones his father, who convinces him to put down the knife and surrender, and there is a happy outcome.

Or, Yatim cannot reach his father, or never mentions his father or anyone else, and the conversation continues.

Officer: "Sorry you couldn't reach your dad. I know we'll be able to reach him eventually. Will you put down the knife?"

Yatim: "No fuckin' way."

Officer: "Please tell me what's bothering you so I can help."

Yatim: "You can't help."

Officer: "How do you know I can't help?"

Yatim: "Because you're a pussy cop."

Officer: "That's not fair. You don't really know me. Give me a chance to try to help."

Yatim: "No."

Officer: "What's your name?"

Yatim: "Who cares?"

Officer: "I care."

Yatim: "Why?"

Officer: "You look like a nice young man. You just have some problem. Something is bothering you. I want to help you?"

Maybe Yatim would finally provide a substantive response, and say something like "My girlfriend", or "The guys pick on me all the time" or ??? If he did respond substantively, there would be a good chance that the officer could engage him in further conversation and ultimately convince him to surrender.

It is possible that Yatim would not have responded to any such entreaties. As long as he was alone on the streetcar, there was no urgency. The confrontation took place at midnight; Yatim would eventually get tired. Officers could wait, and then make other attempts to engage him in conversation.

Of course, it is at least theoretically possible that Yatim would have attempted to stab an officer, in which case shooting might have been justified. But common sense and psychiatric evidence presented at inquests both suggest that soft communications would have had at least a reasonable chance of success.

As the 2014 inquest concerning three people killed by Toronto police recommended: "When officers are dealing with a situation in which a person in crisis has an edged or other weapon, the officers should, when feasible and consistent with maintaining officer and public safety, try to communicate with the person by verbally offering the person help and understanding." There is no downside to requiring that police officers follow this recommendation.

 

This is a re-edited version of an article that first appeared in Toronto's NOW Magazine on November 26, 2015.

Peter Rosenthal is Professor Emeritus of Mathematics and Adjunct Professor of Law at the University of Toronto. He has represented families of victims of police shootings at several inquests.

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