TORONTO – A Toronto police officer is facing a rare murder charge in the death of a young man who was shot multiple times while apparently wielding a knife on an empty streetcar.
Const. James Forcillo was charged Monday with second-degree murder in 18-year-old Sammy Yatim’s death last month.
The shooting was captured on cellphone and surveillance video on which nine shots can be heard, seconds after shouts for Yatim to drop a knife. The final six shots appear to come after Yatim had already fallen to the floor of the streetcar and he is Tasered.
It’s not known how many of the shots hit Yatim, but the Special Investigations Unit has said the young man was shot multiple times.
The videos sparked outrage and prompted hundreds of people to take to the streets in two separate marches, demanding justice for Yatim.
Yatim’s sister took to Twitter to share her reaction to news of the charge.
“The SIU charged the cop with 2nd degree murder!!! Good morning JUSTICE,” tweeted Sarah Yatim.
If Forcillo is eventually convicted, it would be a first for an SIU charge in Ontario. Since the agency’s inception in 1990, nine other police officers have been charged with second-degree murder or manslaughter, but none of them were convicted.
Forcillo has arranged through his lawyer to turn himself in Tuesday morning, at which time he will be taken into custody and appear in court, the SIU said in a statement.
Since the officer has received threats, the SIU would not say where Forcillo will surrender himself. Toronto Police Association President Mike McCormack said he is concerned for Forcillo’s safety in and out of custody.
“We’re always concerned when one of our officers goes before the courts or gets remanded in custody,” McCormack said.
“We’ll ensure just like anybody else that somebody who’s vulnerable is protected…We’ve had death threats against this officer.”
Peter Brauti, the lawyer representing Forcillo, could not immediately be reached for comment. But McCormack spoke to Forcillo and said though he wasn’t surprised by the charge, he was disappointed.
“He’s obviously upset about the charge, the nature of the charge, concerned about it,” McCormack said. “It’s definitely had an adverse impact on his life.”
The SIU, which investigates deaths, injuries or allegations of sexual assault involving police, has investigated more than 100 firearm deaths since 1990.
Forcillo is the third to be charged with second-degree murder. One of the other officers was acquitted, while the second had his charge dismissed, though that decision is under appeal.
Seven police officers have been charged with manslaughter in Ontario since 1990 — three of them for the same death — and all were acquitted. Not all were firearm deaths.
The total of seven doesn’t include Toronto Police Const. David Cavanagh, who was originally charged with manslaughter but later had his charge upgraded to second-degree murder.
Cavanagh was charged after 26-year-old Eric Osawe was shot as the Emergency Task Force guns and gangs unit searched an apartment in Toronto’s west end in 2010. The Osawe family’s lawyer has said the man was shot in the back.
The charge was later upgraded, but at the end of a preliminary inquiry this spring, a judge decided there was insufficient evidence to commit Cavanagh to trial on second-degree murder and dismissed the charge.
The Crown has appealed and is asking the judge to reinstate the manslaughter charge.
York Region Const. Randy Martin was acquitted in 2000 of second-degree murder for the shooting death of 44-year-old Tony Romagnuolo. Martin shot Romagnuolo four times in a scuffle outside the man’s home after police showed up to arrest his son.
The Romagnuolos testified at the trial that the officers pulled their guns and began shooting during fist fights. Martin said his life hung in the balance as he fought for control of his gun. The son was also shot by another officer, but he survived.
McCormack cited Cavanagh’s case as an example of why the public shouldn’t rush to judgment against Forcillo.
“Our officer should be judged in this incident based on what the facts and the evidence are, not just a video or not just what somebody saw on YouTube, but looking at the larger, bigger picture,” McCormack said.
In addition to the SIU’s investigation, Toronto’s police chief has said retired justice Dennis O’Connor will lead a separate review of police procedures, use of force and police response to emotionally disturbed people in the wake of Sammy Yatim’s death.
Chief Bill Blair has said he understands the public has many questions about police conduct in Yatim’s case and has said O’Connor’s review will be “extraordinary” in its scope.
Ontario’s ombudsman has also launched an investigation, probing what kind of direction the provincial government provides to police for defusing conflict situations.
Andre Marin has said Yatim’s shooting raises the question of whether it’s time for Ontario to have consistent and uniform guidelines on how police should de-escalate situations before they lead to the use of force.