NEWS

Toronto shooting victims' families call for police overhaul

08/13/2013 06:14 EDT | Updated 10/13/2013 05:12 EDT
Friends and family members of police shooting victims gathered in Toronto Tuesday, asking for changes to police conduct in the wake the death of Sammy Yatim, the 18-year-old man shot dead by police on a Toronto streetcar last month.

- Judge to help Toronto police review use of force practices.

- Ombudsman to probe police guidelines after Yatim shooting.

- Yatim shooting a test of Ontario's police watchdog.

Many who spoke Tuesday said Yatim’s death on July 26 brought back painful memories and highlighted continuing problems with how police deal with emotionally disturbed people and those with mental health issues.

“I couldn’t watch the news, because it was so close to home,” said Jackie Christopher, whose 26-year-old son O'Brien Christopher-Reid was shot dead by police in 2004. “Another mother had lost a child because the police and the justice system had failed us again. I hope this is the last death this way.”

Christopher, along with a handful of other friends and family members of other police shooting victims, spoke at a news conference Tuesday morning organized by the Ontario Federation of Labour and the Urban Alliance on Race Relations.

The news conference came ahead of a rally planned for noon at Yonge-Dundas Square, where protesters are expected to call for justice for Yatim.

Ruth Schaeffer, whose son Levi died in a police shooting in 2009, said investigations and recommendations that follow police shootings have failed to reduce the number of fatal shootings.

“We have reports gathering dust all over this country,” she said. “There’s lots of recommendations, but the police services get to decide which ones are implemented.

“I’m still reeling from my son’s death. I don’t think I will ever get over it.”

Yatim's death on an empty streetcar was captured on surveillance and cellphone videos in which shouts of "drop the knife" can be heard as a few officers surround the streetcar.

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.

In the wake of Yatim's shooting, Toronto police Chief Bill Blair announced Monday that he has appointed retired justice Dennis O'Connor to assist the force in its review of all police practices, including use of force.

Blair says 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.

O'Connor's probe into Toronto police practices isn't the only investigation announced into how frontline officers handle dangerous situations and what force they use.

A coroner's inquest into the deaths of three people — 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 he wondered what has happened to all these recommendations.

'We've had enough deaths'

Alok Mukherjee, who chairs the Toronto Police Services Board, spoke on CBC Radio's Metro Morning ahead of Tuesday's news conference.

Mukherjee said Yatim's death and other police shootings point to the need for "transformative change" in how the police handle such interactions. As an example, he pointed to provincial regulations that put an emphasis on use-of-force training over training about how to deal with people suffering from mental illness.

“I do believe there’s a widespread sense that we’ve had enough deaths," he told host Matt Galloway. "And we really need to get down to brass tacks and do some major thinking ... not just tinker with pieces.

“There’s an expectation in the community that our police will be an agency that helps people … that most people who need police help are in distress," said Mukherjee. "There’s is an expectation that people will not die at the hands of police. Those are good values.”

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