Controversial police officer-involved shootings of suspect are not just an American phenomena.
One July 27, 2013, Sammy Yatim exposed himself with one hand and opened a large knife with the other while on a Toronto, Ontario, Canada bus. He threatened passengers and the bus was evacuated as officers arrived.
Officers ordered Yatim to drop the knife. He didn’t.
The following graphic video captures what happened next, which shocked a nation.
Toronto Police Service (TPS) officer James Forcillo told Yatim to repeatedly drop the knife. Yatim responded by calling the officer names and shaking his head “no,” then stepped further into the bus. Forcillo can be heard warning that if Yatim stepped towards the steps of the bus again, that he was going to get shot.
Yatim seemed to consider for a few seconds, then stepped towards the front steps of the bus. Forcillo fired three shots, and Yatim dropped. onto his back on the floor of the bus.
If Officer Forcillo had stopped firing at that point, there would have been a minor controversy as know-nothing critics complained about a justifiable use of deadly force. After all, Yatim had been told repeatedly to drop the knife, had been told precisely what would happen if he advanced on officers, and as he had the knife in his hand, he was clearly a lethal force threat. As TPS officers do not routinely carry tasers (a supervisor arrives at the end of the video with one), a less lethal option wasn’t available.
But after Yatim goes down, he reaches over (still on his back) and appears to pick up the knife he dropped when he went down. Once this occurs Officer Forcillo starts firing again.
Yatim is armed, but isn’t attempting to rise. Forcillo fires six shots into the downed Yatim, his body twitching from each hit. Forensics later reveal that Forcillo hit Yatim with eight of his nine shots.
A supervisor arrives and tases Yatim, who is still moving (slightly) and who still has the knife clenched in his hand before the video ends.
The Canadian public was outraged over the shooting, and Forcillo was was charged with 2nd degree murder in August of 2013 for the first three shots he fired. Forcillo was then charged separately with attempted murder in July of 2014 for the six shot he fired while Yatim was on his back.
Forcillo was acquitted of the second degree murder charges for the first three shots in January of this year, but convicted for attempted murder for the six additional shots fired while Yatim was on his back.
Forcillo was just sentenced this past Thursday (July 28) to six years in prison, and immediately appealed the case. He is now out on bail pending his appeal, which outrages many of Yatim’s supporters, but which is not unusual, as Forcillo has reasonable grounds for an appeal and is not considered a risk to the public.
While Canadian and American use of force laws are slightly different, one overarching lesson remains: whether you are a “regular joe” civilian or a sworn law enforcement officer, you are responsible for each and every shot fired, and even one shot too many could turn a justifiable self-defense shooting into a crime.
What’s most striking about the Yatim/Forcillo case is the lengthy five second pause which caused prosecutors to try this as two separate but related incidents.
Forcillo and his defense team could articulate why he felt compelled to fire the first three shots at Yatim, an armed and noncompliant suspect who had been warned repeatedly to drop his knife and who was specifically warned that if he moved towards the bus exit and the officers that he would be shot. Put simply, Yatim moved towards the officers while armed, and he was shot. Forcillo was charged for second degree murder for these first three shots (in my opinion, he shouldn’t have been) and was acquitted.
Once Yatim was on his back, however, the dynamics of the incident changed.
It’s more difficult for Officer Forcillo to articulate a compelling argument that Sammy Yatim was an immediate deadly force threat, even after Yatim reacquired the knife, while Yatim was laying on his back.
It’s pure speculation on my part, but it appears to me that Officer Forcillo became fixated on the fact that Yatim reacquired the knife in his decision to begin shooting again, without also considering that Yatim was not an immediate threat while on his back.
If Sammy Yatim had attempted to sit up or move towards the TPS officers then Forcillo would have been able to articulate that Yatim was still a credible deadly force threat. After all, handgun bullets are notoriously weak and suspects who are determined or on drugs can simply power through even a lethal hit to the heart for 30 seconds or more. But after reacquiring the knife, Sammy Yatim did not make any discernable attempts that could be reasonably interpreted as immediately threatening to TPS officers.
Officer Forcillo fired six times at Sammy Yatim while Yatim was effectively motionless, and the only discernable movement from Yatim was his body twitching in apparent response to 5-6 additional bullet impacts on his body. Officer Forcillo could not articulate a reasonable defense for these six shots during his trial, which led to his conviction on attempted murder charges.
Will his defense team be able to articulate a better defense of his actions during his appeal? That remains to be seen.
You are responsible for every shot you fire. Use enough force, fast and accurately enough to end the immediate deadly force threat against you, but you cannot keep firing once that threat is no longer immediate.