I recently watched an episode of The Rifleman starring Chuck Connors. Connors’ character displayed high moral standards combined with a sense of justice. Perhaps the Toronto Police Officer who shot and killed Sammy Yatim could take a few lessons from watching some classic Westerns.
In this episode, the rifleman, Lucas McCain, was confronted by a horse stealing cowboy who actually wanted to slice him up. Calmly and with great precision, McCain wounded his would be assailant and showed mercy, a trait that the dozen or so officers gathered at the scene of Yatim’s killing seemed to lack. Yes I know we cannot trust Hollywood to provide us with self- defence tips but Westerns as Wittgenstein pointed out, do have much to teach us about ethics.
I have learned that in the “real-world” shooting accuracy field hit rates are about 20 per cent. This means that police hit their targets one in five times. Most often bullets that do not hit the intended target hit innocent bystanders in a euphemism called “friendly fire”. I find the percentage to be disturbing. It signals a great incompetence.
Think of other professions where such a rate of failure would result in anything from malpractice lawsuits to immediate dismissal. Imagine giving a degree to a student who only manages to get 20 per cent on a final examination or imagine going to a dentist who says, “Well, my percentage of correctly doing a root canal is 1 in 5” or having a vasectomy performed by a surgeon who says, “Perhaps I can cut the right tube, eventually.” What do I expect? I expect better than 20 per cent accuracy from so called professionals, armed with weapons, who earn a six figure salary.
I have known and worked with police officers who were exemplars of courage, honesty and virtue. They were physically impressive and intelligent and skilled in the use of weapons. They had a high level of competency and care so that they actually believed in their call to serve and protect others from harm.
On the other hand, I have known officers who had no business being on the force. Somehow they slipped through the competency radar. They became cops in order to seek power over others, to shore up their egos; to compensate with a badge and a gun what they naturally lack. Observe for yourselves; the mall security guard and the parking ticket writers who walk around with the swagger of commandos should clearly be in another field for the sake of the public good.
When I first saw the video of a Division 14 Toronto Police Officer shooting nine rounds at Sammy Yatim I was shocked. A dozen police officers were gathered around the officer who had drawn his weapon. As we know, the officer was telling Yatim to drop his knife. From the manner in which Yatim held his knife, it was evident that he was not a “knife fighter”. He was holding the knife like a candlestick. According to the National Post “in the enhanced video recording….it appears police gave Yatim one stark warning just seconds before they opened fire. “If you take one step in this direction with that foot …[inaudible] die,” a male police officer appears to tell the teenager. Five seconds later the first three shots ring out.””
I do think Yatim was at fault but I also think that there were other ways to disarm an obviously distressed person. Think here of pepper spray, tear gas, a baton or physically taking the small knife away etc., rather than lethal force. Police trainers responded that the apparent shooter Const. James Forcillo did exactly as he was trained. If this is a proper response then there is something clearly wrong with how police are trained. I have learned that police are trained to “shoot to kill and to keep shooting until the threat has stopped moving.” From the video it appeared that Yatim posed little threat to officers. He was frozen and cornered and then executed. The video clearly shows a summary execution by an officer.
The fundamental issue here is that the police force must be accountable, not to its union, but to the public it serves. Unless this fundamental shift occurs, we can expect further incidents by police officers with itchy and caffeinated trigger fingers. The Toronto Police along with other police forces across Canada have a long history of using lethal force when it was not required.
Apparently the Constable who killed Yatim is “devastated” but his actions demonstrate the macho and aggressive ideology prevalent in our society as it generates a force that really reveals an implicit admission of its own impotence. How else are we to understand a dozen police officers afraid to disarm a teenager with a three inch knife?
This needs to be said clearly. If a police officer cannot disarm a person holding a knife without resorting to lethal force then they have no business being a cop. They need to be in another line of work. It seems to me that there was a time when one well trained officer could handle the situation, now a dozen are required.
To analyze any situation requires that we see things as they are. It goes without saying that it is not normal to take out a knife on a streetcar. But, by the same token it is highly abnormal to shoot nine bullets into a person holding a knife and then Taser them just to make sure they have been “neutralized.” The Officer claims that he was acting in self-defence. However, if we reverse the situation and have a civilian shoot a person holding a knife nine times, the civilian would be charged with murder. The officer, on the other hand, gets a suspension with pay.
French philosopher Louis Althusser used the term interpellation to show how ideology addresses us, not as individual persons but as subjects who are always already subjugated. He used the example of a police officer who shouts, “Hey, you there.” Althusser argued that at least one person will turn around to answer the call. The person who answers the call will most likely be the person the police want. Althusser’s example shows that we do not have any choice in the matter. If we ignore the interpellation of the “Hey you”, we will be forced to acknowledge it. Yatim did not respond in a proper manner and was killed. His physiological response was one of frozen fear. After Yatim was shot dead his body was tasered. Only then was an ambulance called; as if Yatim could be revived after such lethal force was used. What a strange logic the police exhibit: first they shoot the suspect dead, Taser them and then perform CPR.
This is the issue that confronts us. Our identities are already ideological constructions. In other words, as social selves, we do not belong to ourselves. We belong to the constraints and demands that others have erected prior to our being born. Yatim was summoned by a Division 14 Constable who decided to shoot him down. For the sake of ethics and justice, we too are summoned not to accept the sloppy display of former high-school football players who tarnish the police badge. It is time for police officers with a sense of vocation, justice and care to defend the nobility of their profession by developing a better screening process to prevent unsuitable candidates from entering their ranks. In short, the public does not need to be under the thumb of incompetents with unresolved issues who somehow represent the force of law. What is required is nothing less than an overhaul of the policing institution which has become an entity unto itself.
Based on the Constable’s actions, one might be hesitant to eat dinner at any Toronto Restaurant with an outdoor patio, lest the knife in their hand is construed as a threat to public safety. This is not far-fetched. Many examples attest to police who over-react. Recently a UK man was forced out of bed by police for holding a remote control. Keith Abrahams was having a nap when 18 armed officers raided his house after a paramedic – who had treated his wife for a panic attack thought he’d seen Abrahams holding a firearm. It is time to for kids in Toronto to put the Nerf guns away.
Those who work for a just society can no longer tolerate the ideological hegemony that surrounds all facets of our life-world. A profound socio-political change requires more than mere protest and shouting at certain police officers who have long lost the ability to hear and listen the oaths they swore to uphold.
Sgt. Brad Fawcett who is a police trainer at the Justice Institute of British Columbia told the CBC, “It’s part of the Hollywood factor, I guess, that we have to deal with. People just think that we can Steven Seagal guns and knives out of people’s hands, and that’s just not the way it is.” Fawcett told the CBC that use-of-force training takes up about 20 per cent of an officer’s education. This is a troubling admission.
Perhaps Fawcett might benefit from looking into how other countries train their officers. For example, the Tokyo Riot Police undertake a year long, three times a day, five days a week training course in Yoshinkan Aikido (the same style Seagal mastered as a 7th degree black belt). This martial art teaches among other things, how to take down an assailant effectively and how to disarm a person holding a knife without firing nine bullets into them. As far as I know, Canadian police officers do not undergo such extreme training in order to become experts in unarmed combat. Wikipedia reveals that the Tokyo Riot Police, “are committed to using disciplined, nonlethal force and do not carry firearms while engaged in riot control duties. They are trained to take pride in their poise under stress. Demonstrators also are usually restrained. Police brutality is rarely an issue. When excesses occur, the perpetrator is disciplined and sometimes transferred from the force if considered unable to keep his temper.” Perhaps Sgt. Fawcett could go to Japan and take the Senshusei course. It would help greatly with his training of other officers.
What I am proposing is nothing new. Plato and Aristotle argued that those who guard us must have exemplary moral character and the skills to match what their vocation requires. Could hiring and equity practices be blamed for the lack of professionalism witnessed on the streets of Toronto? Hiring a 150 pound person to be a police officer because they wanted to wear a uniform ever since they were 10 or because they were bullied as a kid is not in the interest of the public good.
The Constable in question worked as court officer for three years before “going on the streets.” From his response to Yatim, I think that he was ill-equipped to deal with situation. The killing of Yatim forces us to re-examine the function of the police. Who will tell us what police expertise consists of? To whom are they accountable? The fact that the police show resistance when being investigated by the SIU shows that they consider themselves beyond reproach. What steps can be taken to ensure that deadly force is only used when it is absolutely necessary, i.e. when there is immediate and imminent danger to the life of an officer. Toronto Police chief Bill Blair announced Monday that he has asked retired justice Dennis O’Connor to review and make recommendations for best practices concerning police use of force and response to emotionally disturbed people. Many see this move as pure tokenism.
Readers may recall the video of Los Angeles Police Officers who brutally assaulted motorist Rodney King. The officers were later acquitted of all charges after lawyers did a freeze frame analysis of the video evidence. King’s attempts to shield himself from blows were explained to be his attempt at resisting arrest. After the verdict was issued parts of L.A. erupted in riots. Once can only image what police attorney’s will do with the Yatim video. Will they argue that his three inch knife was really a Rambo retractable machete with a laser guided targeting system?
The Police Services Act specifies that “a member of a police force may discharge a handgun or other firearm to call for assistance in a critical situation, if there is no reasonable alternative…” Police had many reasonable alternatives. The police officers at the scene failed to think critically. This means that they ignored obvious alternative positions. It was obvious that Yatim was suffering from psychological distress. No normal person wakes up and says, “Hey, I think I’m going to pull my knife on the Dundas Streetcar today just for kicks to see how fast it can empty out.” Yatim required help, not lethal harm. A Division 14 police officer shot and killed a teenager in need of help. There were other options available. Unfortunately, options disappear when those inexperienced in the use of firearms develop tunnel vision. Correct police protocol was not used in handling this situation.
I think that there must be an ethical intervention for the sake of the public good before the portrayals in Copland become more deeply entrenched. We need a police force that has knowledge, sensitivity, values and the necessary skills both physically and mental to deal with the situations they will encounter. To be sure, police face many dangers but the use of lethal force should be a last resort and not a first response. Danger is the nature of the profession they chose. This is why the public requires trained experts and not ticket writers who train with a weapon a few times a year.
At the funeral Yatim’s mother held her dead son’s hand and wondered why it was not getting warm. Will the Ombudsman give her an answer? A son was taken away from his family by a Toronto Police Officer who over-reacted. What purpose did his over-reaction serve? Did his nine bullets change the world? Did it bring justice to the streets of Toronto? It is not simply a matter that the implicit trust between the police and public has been eroded because of this event. The issue is larger than trust. Police have an old saying that “it’s better to be judged by 12 than carried by six”. I doubt that Yatim’s family finds the old saying comforting. Nine bullets were fired at their son when none were needed.
After this column was written the CBC announced that Constable Forcillo was to be charged with the murder of Sammy Yatim. Toronto police union president Mike McCormack declared that this was a “lose lose situation” but nothing could be further from the truth. In charging Forcillo with murder the SIU clearly recognized that a grave injustice had been committed. Whether or not a jury will agree remains to be seen.Tags: Bill Blair, Brad Fawcett, canada, CBC, Constable Forcillo, Dundas Streetcar, family, James Forcillo, Japan, Los Angeles Police Officers, Perhaps Fawcett, Perhaps Sgt, Rodney King, Sammy Yatim, SIU, Steven Seagal, Tokyo Riot Police, Toronto Police Officer, work, Yoshinkan Aikido