Will We Ever Learn the Whole Truth About Sammy Yatim's Death?

07/29/2013 11:21 EDT | Updated 09/28/2013 05:12 EDT

Another young life, extinguished -- lost.

Eighteen-year-old Sammy Yatim was shot nine times, Tasered, and killed by Toronto police early Saturday morning. Yatim was alone at the time, on a streetcar, apparently having earlier wielded a knife and ordered everyone off. It is not clear whether he had any other weapons on him.

And while there are civilianvideos of the incident, so far none appear to provide the full extent of what happened on the street car immediately prior to the shooting.

Will we ever find out what really happened to Sammy Yatim? Will the truth be uncovered?

Ontario law requires that the Special Investigations Unit be called in any time police actions have caused death or serious injury to a person. We know that the SIU is investigating Yatim's death. Beyond that, we know very little beyond what the videos portray.

It is unlikely that many details will emerge any time soon. And if history is an indicator, many of the details may never be known, unless there is a public inquiry. Why is this so?

To start, the Special Investigations Unit is prohibited by law from making any public statements about the investigation during the course of the investigation. Even when the SIU completes its investigation, its report is given to the Attorney General. This report is confidential and may not be disclosed by the SIU.

Furthermore, while members of the police are required, by law, to co-operate with the SIU investigation, there are a great many obstacles that are likely to hamper the SIU's work. Here are some:

1) The scene of the incident: while the SIU seems to have arrived on the scene relatively quickly, the integrity of their investigation will be affected by how much the scene was secured -- or changed -- before the arrival of SIU investigators. For the SIU to be able to make truthful and valid findings, it would be essential, for example, that Yatim's body was not moved by anyone after he was shot. Was the scene properly secured before the SIU's arrival?

2) Interactions between the officers involved: The Chief of police is required to ensure that the officers involved in the incident are segregated and do not communicate with one another, directly or indirectly, until after the SIU has completed its interviews with the officers. This step is required to ensure that they each record and provide to the SIU their own, independent recollection of the events, uninfluenced by other officers on the scene. If this segregation does not occur, then the integrity of the investigation can be seriously compromised.

3) Note-taking by the officers: the officers involved must make independent notes of the event as soon as possible. They are required to hand these notes to the Chief, who is then required to provide them to the SIU, upon the latter's request. If the recording of these notes is delayed or influenced by other officers in any way, then the SIU investigation, again, will be undermined. Did the officers immediately record their notes? Did they avoid conversation about what occurred prior to writing their notes?

4) Not all officers are required to speak to the SIU: Under the Police Services Act, members of the police force are required to co-operate fully with SIU investigators. However, this requirement is immediately limited in at least two ways.

First, any officers who might be "subject" officers, in other words, officers who may face criminal charges as a result of the investigation, are not required to speak to the SIU. Such officers are afforded the same protection as other potential accused persons, in that they can maintain their right to silence. It is not immediately clear from the video if one or two officers shot Sammy Yatim. Therefore, at least one, and possibly two, officers will likely refuse to talk to the SIU, as they are "subject" officers.

What about the many other officers who were on the scene? While, on the face of it, their obligation to co-operate with the SIU may give us some hope, there is reason to be cynical about how much the SIU will gain or find out from these officers.

SIU records show that such officers, indeed entire police forces, do not co-operate with the SIU. What's worse, it appears that at times, police officers take steps to hamper, delay, and undermine the SIU's investigation (by not handing over their notes promptly, for example, or by interfering with the evidence.)

In other words, there are no guarantees that the co-operation of the witness officers will be untainted or will allow the SIU to determine the truth.

5) Will the various officers involved consult with the same lawyer, as has happened in the past? If the same lawyer is consulted by more than one officer, that lawyer will have to share the information learned from one client with the other, as each person's description of the events will impact the others' defence. This is a tactic that often benefits police officers. However, this information-sharing will clearly lead to a tainting of the evidence, rendering the evidence less reliable. Are any of the officers in this case consulting with the same lawyer?

These are some of the obstacles the SIU will face in its attempts to investigate the killing of Sammy Yatim.

It is devastating for Sammy Yatim's family to have lost their loved one in this manner.

It is devastating for all of us to lose a member of our community in this manner.

Perhaps it is devastating even for the officers who were involved -- officers who might be asking themselves if there was another way to deal with the situation to avoid the killing of this young man.

It is devastating that we may never learn the whole truth.

It is only through learning the whole truth, and through accepting responsibility for our collective actions as officers and as a community, that we can avoid such tragedies.

Sammy Yatim is the first victim in this tragic incident. Let's ensure that the truth does not become the next victim.

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