What We Need to Learn from the Death of Sammy Yatim

As long as there is something we can learn from the shooting death of Sammy Yatim by a Toronto Police Officer, than the 18-year-old's passing will not have been in vain.  If you follow the innumerable examples of wrongdoing by police, not just in this province but across Canada, one thing is clear, and that is that there is something seriously wrong with the way law enforcement are policing our communities.  While Yatim’s murder has set off a maelstrom of public outrage for many of us who work in the justice system, or have concerns about how we are being policed, the topic is not a new one.

Two years ago Dan Donovan, the founder and Publisher of Ottawa Life Magazine, and I launched a Kickstarter Campaign hoping to raise funds to establish a police centre that would collect and post all cases of police incidents in Canada online. The purpose for creating the site was to track the investigation of these cases by oversight bodies and the courts and to post consequences to the offending officer(s) on the site.  We felt the establishment of such a site was needed because we were very familiar with the widespread frequency with which police officers were committing offences and then receiving penalties that amounted to nothing more than a temporary demotion or suspension of pay for a few months.  In short, we were appalled at the conduct being exhibited by police officers and the fact that no one, including our elected politicians, were saying or doing anything to correct the problem.  To our dismay the site garnered less than $2,000 in contributions from the public, far short of our goal of $75,000.

However, once criminal charges were filed against Toronto Police Constable James Forcillo for the shooting death of Sammy Yatim, the public suddenly woke up to the fact that policing in this province and across the country is in a state of crisis.  Forcillo’s conviction suddenly galvanized the public mind in a way that it never has before about problem policing.  People now recognize that there are serious issues with policing and they are looking for answers to the problem.  As a criminologist who has worked in the criminal justice system for over 25 years, I would like to put forward some remedies that would vastly improve the current state of policing.

First, we have to address the inadequacies of the current training system, which in my view is 50 years out of date.  Training should reflect what police officers actually do on the job as opposed to what the general public thinks they do.  Research shows that less than 20 per cent of a police officer’s work relates to law enforcement.  Police spend over 80 per cent of their time on order maintenance functions such as directing traffic, responding to noisy parties, writing reports and responding to neighborhood disputes.  Contrast this with the fact that the training is just the opposite.  Eighty per cent of the training for recruits focuses on firearms competency, use of force scenarios, tactical training and crowd control and less than 20 per cent involves mediation, communications, race relations, and mental health issues.  It should come as no surprise to learn therefore that 80 per cent of complaints filed against police from members of the public relate to order maintenance functions of which they are poorly trained and unequipped to deal with

Second, the current training program for police (outside of the RCMP) lasts for no more than eight to 10 weeks.  It’s unrealistic to think that in such a short space of time a recruit could be even remotely prepared for the challenges that they are going to face on the street once they graduate.  Police training should last a minimum of one year and the program should teach them the skill set they will need when they graduate. These officers need to understand the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, verbal judo, important rulings from the Supreme Court of Canada and de-escalation techniques.

Third, once recruits leave police college they should be subject to a two year probationary period under the supervision of a certified training supervisor.  They should not be allowed to take the oath of office to become a police officer until such time as their training has been validated in the field.  Certified training supervisors should be required to have a minimum of at least five years experience in street policing.

Fourth, although recruits receive a battery of psychological tests to gain admission to a career in policing, they are never evaluated on the job.  There should be mandatory psychological tests administered to every street cop who has policed for at least five years.  Such tests would help weed out officers who are suffering from psychological issues or who have a propensity to be aggressive or violent towards members of the public.

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Fifth, we know from research that the police subculture plays a major role in changing the behaviour and attitude of young recruits more so than training.  To address this issue, police recruits should be reminded that their loyalty must be to the rule of law and the public they serve. Police officers should be required to renew their oath of office every year to ensure that this point is driven home.

Sixth, there should be a quarterly performance and evaluation review of every officer in order to identify problem issues relating to behaviour and their performance on the job.  At the present time this is not the case and what this means is that problem behaviour can go undetected for years before it explodes with violence in the public domain.  It has been widely reported in the media that Constable James Forcillo had a tendency to frequently draw his weapon on the job even when it was neither necessary nor justified under the circumstances.

The measures set out above will go a long way to correct deficiencies in our police system.  If we couple them with dramatic changes to our oversight process for policing in Ontario than perhaps we will stand a chance at turning around the tidal wave of bad policing that is infecting our society and blighting our justice system.  Whether it would have prevented Sammy Yatim’s death no one can say for certain.  However, what it will mean is that Sammy’s death will not have been in vain, and in my opinion that is no small matter.

The views expressed are those of the author in his personal capacity.

Darryl T Davies is an Instructor in criminology and criminal justice with the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Carleton University.