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Toronto police didn't need to shoot teen

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Video shows Toronto police had alternatives to shooting Sammy Yatim when they did. The SIU and Chief Bill Blair are investigating -- and this time we need real answers.

Much remains unknown about the events that led to the killing of Sammy Yatim. But this much seems clear: the 18-year-old didn't need to die as he did, in a storm of police bullets while cornered in an empty Toronto streetcar.

There were alternatives, including holding off on use of deadly force at least until officers, or the public, were in more obvious danger. Video of the incident shows, although Yatim was armed with a knife, he wasn't holding hostages or charging at anyone.

Yet something compelled police to open fire, discharging nine shots at Yatim and -- seconds later -- administering a jolt with a taser. The teenager, who had emigrated with his family from Syria just a few years ago, sustained multiple gunshot wounds and was pronounced dead at St. Michael's Hospital.

Whether officers broke the law, or failed to follow designated protocols, is a matter to be determined by Ontario's Special Investigations Unit. That agency has assigned six investigators, plus two forensic specialists, to probe the circumstances of police conduct in this tragedy. And Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair announced he is initiating his own investigation of officers' behaviour along with a review of the service's procedures, policies and training.

The public has "every right to be concerned," Blair noted after he had expressed his condolences to Yatim's family and friends. "As a father, I can only imagine their terrible grief and their need for answers."

But it's not just Yatim's family that deserves clarity; every Torontonian is owed an explanation for what happened on that streetcar just after midnight on Saturday. And it's important answers go beyond the narrow confines of this particular shooting. Yatim wasn't the first person to be felled by Toronto police bullets while acting erratically. Indeed, events like this happen with alarming frequency.

Work is underway at the Ontario coroner's office in preparation for an inquest into the killing of three people with mental illnesses shot since 2010 by Toronto police while they were brandishing knives or scissors. A date for the beginning of that inquest is yet to be announced. And its purview won't include a host of other cases in which mentally ill people were gunned down by city police, including the 1997 shooting of a hammer-wielding schizophrenic man, Edmond Yu, on a Toronto Transit Commission bus.

Yatim's death marks just the most recent episode in a grim history. In light of that, it's vital to obtain answers to a broad range of questions. The suitability of training given to front-line officers warrants particular scrutiny. It's not at all clear enough has been done to instruct police on how to de-escalate confrontations with a mentally ill or disturbed person, or if that message is actually sinking in.

One useful response in the wake of past shootings was creation of mobile crisis-intervention teams, consisting of a police officer paired with a mental-health nurse, skilled in defusing confrontations. No such team was on hand when Yatim was shot and it's fair to ask if this program should be expanded to put more units on the street.

It seems a taser was deployed against Yatim only when it was too late, after he had been shot. Most Toronto officers aren't equipped with these stun guns and it's worth exploring whether more cops should be issued this potential alternative to drawing a pistol.

Police culture puts a premium on responding to a crisis with decisive and direct intervention. But does that make it hard for officers to disengage, even when they obviously should? And if so, how is this culture to be fixed?

In the absence of answers to these questions we're compelled to ask yet another: How many more deaths will it take to stop needless shootings such as that of Sammy Yatim?

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 31, 2013 A13

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