This week saw Toronto trying to make sense of the fatal shooting by police of a knife-wielding 18-year-old man, Sammy Yatim, on an empty streetcar. I'm not surprised the incident led to heated public protests and accusations of excessive force. Watching the graphic video of the events, which has made the rounds on social and mainstream media, it's difficult to understand how firing approximately nine bullets at Yatim would have seemed necessary given that Yatim was alone on the streetcar at a not insubstantial distance from the small crowd of police officers who were ready with their guns drawn. In other words, most of us look at the video and think: The officers would have had ample time to fire had he come at them with the knife, so why do the shots appear to have been discharged before Yatim came anywhere near them (the admittedly sketchy consensus seems to be that Yatim took one step forward)? As unwise as it is, surely a failure to obey a police order (Yatim was told repeatedly to drop the knife and did not comply) cannot be considered reasonable grounds for letting loose with a hail of bullets.
Yes, it's entirely possible (probable even) that the officers involved were frightened, fueled by adrenaline, and acting on a sincere belief that Yatim posed an imminent danger to them and others -- the fact that they appear to have used a stun gun on Yatim even after firing nine gunshots at him gives a hint at the level of panic they seem to have felt. And it's also true that the actual time period officers would have had to react to Yatim had he lunged at them with a knife may be a lot shorter than laypeople (like me) watching the video might think, as a trainer at the Justice Institute of B.C. argued to CBC News. However, none of that is an excuse. It's precisely these difficult factors and complex considerations which we expect police to be trained about, ad nauseam if need be, to contain their use of force to the bare minimum level needed to defuse any serious threat.