Policing the Police
It is never easy being the good guy, but the recent verdict that found Toronto Police officer James Forcillo guilty of attempted murder over the 2013 shooting of Sammy Yatim on a streetcar shows just how fuzzy the line between a good guy and a bad one can be.
There are several reasons why the ruling on this incident has grave workplace-safety implications. First, the incident occurred when a police officer was on duty, responding to a potentially lethal confrontation with a knife-wielding man on public transit. Second, the verdict could strike fear throughout law enforcement and lead to hesitation in the use of force in future confrontations. Some argue that this could put both officer and public safety in jeopardy. Toronto Police Association president Mike McCormack, who spoke to the media after the trial, said the verdict had affected the psyche of frontline officers.
“Clearly, that sends a chilling message to our members,” McCormack said. “A big concern for us is that, are they going to hesitate when they should take action?”
Forcillo was convicted not for firing the first round of shots that killed Yatim, but for the second volley of six shots, which the jury regarded as excessive. This incident begs the questions: why did Forcillo deem it necessary to discharge a second round of shots after Yatim was clearly incapacitated, and should employees be held legally responsible for causing harm or death in a work-related scenario that sanctions the use of force?
The verdict has clearly answered the latter question with a resounding yes. While the use of force by law enforcers is officially sanctioned, its use must be reasonable. As with all other things, authority and accountability go hand in hand.
Canada’s national use-of-force framework for police officers provides guidelines on how to act in a reasonable manner during a confrontation. Under the framework, an officer can respond to a situation in six ways: officer presence; communication; soft physical control; hard physical control; intermediate weapons; and lethal force. The response chosen is determined by an officer’s assessment of prevailing circumstances, the subject’s behaviour, the officer’s perceptions and tactical considerations.
In real life, considering all the above factors when faced with a volatile situation can be a tall order, considering that the officer has to make a split-second decision without the benefit of hindsight, as was the case in the encounter between Forcillo and Yatim, which lasted barely a minute. But that is the inevitable responsibility that comes to those in positions of authority who have been given the right to bear and use arms — and to use them reasonably and responsibly when circumstances call for it.
With the ubiquitous use of digital media, the need for accountability among law enforcers will only become more prominent. Forcillo’s lawyer, Peter Brauti, told the media following the delivery of the verdict that the video of the streetcar shooting was posted all over YouTube within seven minutes of the incident taking place. This has resulted in what Brauti called a “trial by YouTube.” He added that this was one trial in which jurors had already formed an opinion about the case beforehand. This prompted Brauti to write to the Attorney General for consent to have the case determined by a judge instead of a jury — a request that was turned down.
As the deadly tasering of Robert Dziekanski at the Vancouver airport in 2007 has shown, law enforcers and their actions are constantly under the watchful eye of the public. While body and dashboard cameras can absolve officers from false accusations, it will hold them equally accountable for their actions.
If there is one lesson that Forcillo has learned, it is that judgement by cell phones is swift and often unforgiving.
Jean Lian is editor of OHS Canada.