The shooting of Sammy Yatim and the trial, conviction, sentencing and now parole of the man who killed him is a case study of almost everything that’s wrong with the justice system in Canada. In fact, this single case may well have failed everyone touched by it.
Sammy Yatim was 18 years old when he was shot dead on a Toronto streetcar July 27, 2013. Born in Syria, he moved to Canada in 2008 and had just graduated from a Catholic high school. His friends say he was struggling to find his place as an adult in a country that was still fairly new to him. He had drugs in his system the night he exposed himself to passengers on the 505 Dundas Streetcar and threatened them with a knife.
Const. James Forcillo was 12 years older than Yatim and in his sixth year with the Toronto Police Service when he shot and killed the younger man. A graduate of a Los Angeles-area justice program, with a psychology degree from York University, he was the junior of two cops in a patrol car when it was dispatched to reports of a man threatening passengers on a streetcar.
Yatim was failed by a policing system that sent to the scene a young, hot headed officer ill-prepared to deal with what he found. More experienced officers may have successfully de-escalated the situation and resolved it peacefully. Const. Forcillo did the opposite — he rapidly escalated to lethal force.
Const. Forcillo was failed first by his training — which did not prepare him to face Yatim. He was also failed by police leaders at every level. More experienced and higher-ranking police officers (including Forcillo’s own partner) arrived on scene before Yatim was killed, though just by seconds. None of them took command of the situation before the first shooting. None of them stopped the second round of bullets — for which there was time to intercede.
Despite counselling Const. Forcillo twice for drawing his service pistol too quickly and too often, senior police leaders failed to correct a young officer with poor judgment and a bias to inappropriate action.
Police services nationwide were failed by a culture that leaves them looking guilty by association with Forcillo. When Forcillo stated under oath his job was to go home safe at the end of his shift — no senior leaders begged to differ.
Individual cops across Canada were failed by their union leaders who stood alongside Forcillo, pretending he wasn’t a “bad apple.” Almost every Canadian police officer is wholeheartedly dedicated to serving and protecting the public — not going home in time for dinner. But by ignoring the obvious fact one of the apples is rotten, the entire bunch was spoiled.
Yatim’s family were failed by a justice system that allowed their son’s killer to seek and be awarded parole without them knowing — or having an opportunity to speak.
Canadians were failed by courts that took too long to reach a final verdict. By a system that often appeared to favour the accused because he was a cop. By laws that allowed an accused murderer to be paid by taxpayers for years. And to keep his honoured status as a peace officer, even after being convicted of attempted murder.
The correctional system was failed by laws that make it look irrelevant and out of touch with Canadians.
Finally, Forcillo himself was failed by a system that allows him to leave prison too soon — before a vengeful society feels his debt is paid. Society will hold that against him. And, most likely, before he has had the opportunity to learn the lessons he was intended to learn from his sentence.
This case has no winners and too many losers.