This Monday morning, the Special Investigations Unit (SIU) charged Constable James Forcillo for second-degree murder in the shooting of 18-year old Sammy Yatim on July 26, 2013. Various YouTube postings of the initial civilian footage clearly show that a distressed Yatim—armed only with a 3 inch blade, isolated in a streetcar and surrounded by Police—was of little threat to anyone prior to being shot 9 times and then tasered.
The ruling has been received with a mixture of shock, relief and jubilation. From Sammy’s family and friends came the joy of seeing some potential of justice emerging from the murder of their loved one. “The SIU charged the cop with 2nd degree murder!!! Good morning JUSTICE,” wrote Sammy’s sister Sarah over Twitter. Indeed, much of the commentary over social media shows the extent to which people were incensed by this tragedy, and relieved to see some sign that the perpetrator would be held accountable.
Shock, of course, because this type of ruling isn’t the norm. Forcillo is just the 7th police officer to be charged by the SIU with manslaughter or murder since 1990. Importantly, however, all previously charged officers have been cleared in court.
There is no doubt that public opinion has forced the hand of the police services and the beleaguered SIU, generated in no small part by the direct footage from the scene of the murder along with the significant mobilization led by Sammy Yatim’s family and supporters.
Toronto Police Chief Chief Bill Blair, after an endless streak of scandals since the G20 debacle, scrambled to provide a response that could temper the outpouring of indignation. Blair’s appointment of retired Justice Dennis O’Connor on August 12 to undertake a ‘review’ of police handling of these type of scenarios was quite obviously an attempt by the police chief to take some initiative in light of the public relations disaster that the killing of Sammy Yatim has become. (It should be noted, though, that the review is not binding and O’Connor’s law firm has established ties with the Police.) The week before, Ontario’s Ombudsman André Marin had announced a probe into the training of Toronto police, a move that led to some vicious slander on Facebook after a Durham police officer allegedly claimed Marin was a member of Al Qaida.
For its part the Special Investigations Unit—under harsh scrutiny since the release of a damning report from Marin in 2011 that highlighted the toothless and nepotistic nature of the SIU—was facing a situation where much of the public was anticipating an acquittal of Forcillo given the history of the organization. This time around, however, with the public evidence circulating and public anger high, the SIU was under intense pressure to charge Forcillo and shore up some legitimacy.
Indeed, this is a small victory especially for those who have lost a brother, a son and a friend. And perhaps the charging of Forcillo is a blow to the culture of police impunity in this city.
At the same time, we must remain cautious and vigilant. An SIU charge does not mean that Forcillo will go to jail. In fact, history shows that he stands a good chance of walking free. At the least, his charges will almost certainly be reduced, carrying a far lighter sentence. If the statistics give people cause to question the credibility of the SIU, then the courts need to also be questioned, especially as concerns the holding police accountable.
Not addressed in this ruling but at least as important are the changes needed to the police force itself. This incident has generated unprecedented debate in Toronto not only on the conduct of certain officers, but also on the very structures of policing in this City—do frontline police officers really need guns that they appear to misuse so frequently? why is the police budget so large, and why are there so many cops in the streets? The incident has moreover activated hundreds of people who have taken to the streets, unafraid to challenge the police.
This debate will not end, and the mobilization should not stop. This ruling was the product of the actions of people—from the family of Sammy, to the brave people who filmed and published the video, to those who spoke to media and came out on the streets. Remaining active and continuously organizing around issues that face working-class and racialized people is the only way to secure justice for Sammy and to try to ensure that no more lives will be lost in this way.