Groups rally in Toronto to call for action on police shootings

TORONTO – The families of police shooting victims in Ontario say the death of a young man who was shot aboard an empty streetcar in Toronto last month has “retraumatized” them and emphasized the need for real change.

They are calling for Ontario’s ombudsman to meet with them to find a “better solution” to how police deal with people in crisis so other such fatal encounters can be prevented.

Their comments came at a news conference Tuesday that was arranged by the Ontario Federation of Labour and the Urban Alliance on Race Relations.

The OFL said it is demanding an independent investigation into police training, policies and practices across the province “from the highest levels of decision-making right down to the front line response.”

Irwin Nanda, executive vice president of the OFL, said the province’s police watchdog — the Special Investigations Unit — must also be investigated.

Nanda said Sammy Yatim’s death on a streetcar, which was captured on surveillance and cellphone videos, was a result of a “total breakdown of the policing system.”

“Literally decades of reports, inquests and recommendations are gathering dust on police station shelves as the bodies of victims are piling up,” he said.

Tuesday’s call for action came just a day after Toronto police Chief Bill Blair announced the appointment of retired justice Dennis O’Connor to assist the force in its review of all police practices, including use of force.

Blair said he’s asked O’Connor to make recommendations and examine best practices from around the world, citing public concern about police use of force and response to emotionally disturbed people.

But Karyn Greenwood Graham, the mother of a police shooting victim in Kitchener, lashed out at Blair, saying the review he announced is “tokenism.”

“We’re actually in a David and Goliath battle here and I’d like to ask the public to actually get behind us and actually call their MPPs and insist on change,” she said.

“All our loved ones deaths are preventable.”

Meanwhile, Ruth Schaeffer, whose son was fatally shot by police in northern Ontario, said the conclusions from studies and inquests on police shooting deaths need to be put into practice.

“All the recommendations that need to be put in place to safeguard the life of Canadian citizens are sitting in print for anybody who is interested to implement,” she said.

“I believe that it is a mark of a democracy how many of our own people are killed by our own state.”

The morning news conference, which often referred to Yatim’s death, came just a few hours before an afternoon rally in Toronto calling for justice for the 18-year-old.

Hundreds of protesters packed a major downtown throughfare, waving banners and placards carrying messages like “an empty streetcar? Whom did you protect” and “abolish the SIU.”

Chants of “justice for Sammy, justice for all” and “charge that cop,” filled the air.

Yatim’s mother, sister and other family members marched with the crowd, which headed to Toronto’s police headquarters, where the police services board was set to hold its monthly public meeting.

Dozens of police officers blocked the entrance to the building with their bicycles as protesters arrived.

On videos which capture the events which led to Yatim’s death, shouts of “drop the knife” can be heard as a few officers surround the streetcar the youth was on.

Three shots ring out and Yatim can be seen dropping to the floor, then seconds later six more shots can be heard followed by the sound of a Taser.

The incident led to a storm of outrage on Twitter and Facebook over the way authorities dealt with Yatim.

Just how frontline officers handle dangerous situations and what force they use is expected to remain in the spotlight over the coming months.

A coroner’s inquest into the deaths of three people — who may have had mental health issues, and were shot and killed after approaching Toronto police officers with weapons — is scheduled to begin in October.

And Ontario’s ombudsman will look into what kind of direction the provincial government provides to police for defusing conflict situations.

Andre Marin said many coroner’s inquests into similar deaths over the past 20 years have made recommendations that are almost “carbon copied from each other,” but — as many families of victims have said — he wondered what has happened to all the recommendations.