08/01/2013 10:13 EDT | Updated 10/01/2013 05:12 EDT

Sammy Yatim shooting a test of Ontario's police watchdog

The fatal shooting of Sammy Yatim on a Toronto streetcar — which has sparked public anger at law enforcement in Canada’s largest city — is shaping up to be a key test of Ontario’s police watchdog.

Yatim, 18, was pronounced dead at hospital shortly after midnight into Saturday, following a police shooting in a busy downtown area lined with bars.

A bystander recorded video of the altercation that suggests Yatim was alone on the empty streetcar and holding a knife in one hand when he was shot at by police nine times and then jolted with a Taser. A second video recording from a security camera on a nearby convenience store shows passengers fleeing the streetcar before police arrive.

Video of the shooting has been viewed more than a million times on YouTube, galvanizing public anger and leading to a street protest on Monday that drew hundreds of people to the site of the shooting.

The province’s Special Investigations Unit (SIU), which describes itself as “an arm’s length agency that investigates reports involving police where there has been death, serious injury or allegations of sexual assault,” says it has assigned eight investigators to probe the circumstances surrounding Yatim’s death. And the officer who is the focus of their probe, Const. James Forcillo, has been suspended without pay.

Charges rarely laid

The SIU probed 314 incidents involving police in 2012, the highest number on record and part of an upward trend over the past decade. Charges were laid in just 11 cases, or 3.6 per cent of incidents investigated last year.

Scot Wortley, an associate professor of criminology at the University of Toronto, said there isn’t enough information to determine whether the SIU is laying too many or too few charges against officers.

“They’ve never allowed an evaluation to take place,” he said. “You can’t evaluate something unless you hire objective, outside evaluators with the necessary skills and give them full access to the data they need.”

With little evidence to go by, Wortley said various stakeholders have been left to interpret the numbers as it suits them.

While some interpret the SIU’s performance as proof that police in Ontario “are fantastic” and only engage in the legitimate use of force, others see the agency’s track record as a sign that SIU investigations are biased in favour of the police, Wortley said.

Critics point to the makeup of the SIU’s team of investigators, “most if not all” of whom are former police officers, he said, or the fact that police who are the subject of an SIU probe are not compelled to speak to investigators.

However, Paul Di Simoni, the Police Association of Ontario’s chief administrative officer, said if the number of cases in which the SIU lays charges is low, it simply means “the evidence does not support the laying of a charge.”

Police co-operation at issue

On Wednesday, Ontario’s ombudsman raised the prospect that the provincial government will conduct an independent probe of Yatim’s death if it’s not satisfied with the SIU’s work, and may direct police forces in the province to work more readily with the agency.

“The co-operation of the police with an SIU investigation is an exception and not the norm, When you hear the police say ‘oh, we always co-operate,’ it rings hollow,” Andre Marin told CBC Radio’s Metro Morning.

“The provincial government committed to strengthening the role of the SIU, to make sure that the evidence they get is untampered and it’s obtained readily and early,” he said.

The lack of co-operation from police has been a longstanding problem for the SIU, according to Marin. He has flagged the issue in the past, including in twin public reports about the agency published in 2008 and 2011.

Di Simoni noted that police are obligated to co-operate with the SIU under provincial law, and said that Marin’s comments “are not constructive in this situation.”

‘Investigations have improved’

Lawyer Peter Rosenthal has dealt with a number police shooting cases in Toronto, and will represent the family of Michael Eligon at a public inquest this fall. Eligon wandered out of a downtown Toronto hospital on Feb. 3, 2012, and was shot by police while he was holding scissors.

“In recent years the SIU investigations have improved, it seems to me. The quality of them is much better,” Rosenthal said. “But they often have not laid charges in situations where I thought they could lay a charge.”

The agency probed Eligon’s death and opted not to lay charges, concluding that the officer who shot him was justified because he could have reasonably concluded that Eligon “was an armed and dangerous individual who was non-compliant with police demands.”

Rosenthal said that in his experience, many of the deaths in Toronto that are probed by the SIU involve victims who either had a history of mental-health problems or were “in crisis at the moment.”

While Yatim reportedly had no history of mental illness, he “seems to have been in some sort of strange frame of mind” on the night of the shooting, Rosenthal said.

“That is a common situation. There’s never a bad guy who shoots a bunch of people and then shoots it out with police and gets killed,” he added. “It’s always these people who are in crisis, who haven’t hurt anybody, who suffer death.”