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James Forcillo's Bail Proves a Double Standard

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Officer James Forcillo, who shot Sammy Yatim nine times while the latter was alone, on a street car, wielding a small knife, was charged with second-degree murder on Monday.

On Tuesday, Forcillo surrendered to the Special Investigations Unit, was taken into custody, and by the afternoon, was already out on bail.

What a well-oiled, efficient machine is our criminal justice system!

What a sensible decision, to release the officer on bail, and not to give in to public pressure that sometimes ignores the presumption of innocence. Forcillo has no criminal record, has a family and four sureties, has promised not to leave the province without the Crown's permission, and is unlikely to commit another offence while on bail. There is no reason to keep him in jail while he awaits trial.

As astute observers know, however, our justice system chugs along very slowly in most criminal cases, let alone ones involving murder.

And while the decision to release Mr. Forcillo pending his trial is, indeed, a sensible one, the injustice of the release stems from the fact that other accused persons are rarely offered the same rational, compassionate treatment.

In the past, I have written about the fact that convicted police officers tend to receive lighter sentences than civilians in similar cases. The sentences, themselves, were not necessarily inappropriate. The problem is that civilians in similar circumstances do not get the same empathy and treatment as officers and, therefore, they receive tougher sentences. It's the inequity of results and the differential treatment of civilians and officers that is at issue.

In Officer Forcillo's case, the SIU announced, on Monday, that they would lay second-degree charges against him. On Tuesday, the officer surrendered to the SIU, was taken to the Ontario Court of Justice, transferred to the Superior Court (those accused of murder start at the lower court and are then transferred for their bail hearing), had his bail hearing and was released all on the same day, by 3:15 p.m. It can take longer than that to have a bail hearing for an assault or theft! How did all of this happen so quickly, so smoothly?

No doors were kicked in to arrest Mr. Forcillo. No dramatic or humiliating arrests were made in front of family and friends. No lengthy adjournments took place for the actual bail hearing. Everything was remarkably in place.

Mr. Forcillo and his lawyer anticipated that the charges could be laid. Forcillo had time to organize himself and his documents. Four sureties were neatly lined up for the bail hearing.

Most astonishingly, it appears that the Crown Attorney, who is responsible for the prosecution of cases stayed up much of the night and co-operated with Mr. Forcillo's lawyer to draft bail conditions to which both the Crown and the defence could agree. The Crown Attorney was not only reachable, but he stayed up at night! This special treatment is particularly shocking and unjust.

The problem is not that the Crown Attorney took this matter seriously and was kind enough to stay awake. The problem is that no one, no one other than a police officer (or perhaps a former minister) would get this kind of special treatment by a Crown Attorney.

How ideal it would be if everyone who came through the system was treated with the same level of humanity. But none are.

Yet, despite the unjust preferential treatment of the officer, there is reason to be cautiously and somberly, if momentarily, content. Officer Forcillo has been charged.

Will his charge get us the sought after answers and solutions?

Not necessarily. And not so for the Yatim family. The family wants accountability, not just from one officer, but from all the officers present. They want to know what happened and why. They want to know how the police can avoid repeating a similar tragedy in the future.

Trials rarely give victims the answers to these questions.

Other open, engaged, collaborative efforts, such as a true victim-offender reconciliation, or processes similar to Aboriginal healing circles or truth and reconciliation endeavours, are more likely to give the needed answers, to heal the wounds, to allow officers (who are willing to do so) to take responsibility and to make amends, and to result in a meaningful, systemic change to policing and police response to similar events.

Restorative justice. That would be a meaningful response to this horrific tragedy. Perhaps the officers would even wish to participate in such a process for, difficult and emotionally draining as restorative justice can be, it gives everyone a better chance at healing.

Let us hope that when we become enlightened enough to implement restorative justice for such cases, we don't limit it to cases where police officers are the ones accused of a serious crime