Bill Blair said Monday he has asked Dennis O'Connor to conduct a review he called "extraordinary" in its scope. It follows not just the case of Sammy Yatim, who died last month after being shot by police on an empty streetcar, but several other fatal police shootings in recent years.
"I believe that the public concern with respect to this matter and issues arising and concerns about our policies and our procedures, the training of our officers and the equipment that they use requires that I seek the help of Justice O'Connor," Blair said at a news conference.
Hundreds of people took to the streets to demand justice for Yatim's death, which was captured on surveillance and cellphone videos. Nine shots can be heard on the videos following shouts for Yatim to drop the knife. The final six appear to come after Yatim had already fallen to the floor of the streetcar.
A review by the chief of police is mandated under the Police Services Act in Yatim's death because the Special Investigations Unit is involved, but O'Connor's review will look beyond his case, and will include an international review of established best practices, Blair said.
"I think there's recognition over a number of instances where there is concern among the public with respect to the use of force and our response to emotionally disturbed persons."
Blair acknowledged that there have been other police shooting deaths in recent years. A coroner's inquest this fall will examine the deaths of three people who may have had mental health issues when they approached Toronto police officers with weapons and were shot and killed.
Reviews were conducted in all of those cases, Blair said, but they were internal reviews.
"I think it is an appropriate time to seek outside help, to seek the expertise and the wisdom of Justice O'Connor," Blair said.
O'Connor was the associate chief justice of Ontario's Appeal Court for 10 years and conducted inquiries into both the Walkerton water tragedy in Ontario and the rendition and torture of Maher Arar, a Canadian of Syrian descent.
The last time a Toronto police chief asked for outside help to conduct a similar review was in 2001, when Julian Fantino retained Justice George Ferguson to conduct a review of police misconduct following allegations of corruption in its drug squad.
Under the Police Services Act, the review must be completed and reported to the police services board within the 30 days of the SIU completing its investigation. Blair said the professional standards branch will separately look into the conduct of the officer at the centre of the Yatim shooting and will report those findings within the 30 days. But the broader review is expected to take longer.
Const. James Forcillo has been suspended and the Toronto Police Association president has urged the public not to jump to conclusions.
Blair's announcement came a day before representatives for the families of seven people killed in police shootings were set to call for action to prevent other fatal police encounters.
The news conference, arranged by the Ontario Federation of Labour and the Urban Alliance on Race Relations, is scheduled to start two hours before a rally planned to coincide with a Toronto Police Services Board meeting.
Ontario's ombudsman has also launched an investigation, probing what kind of direction the provincial government provides to police for defusing conflict situations.
Andre Marin has said Yatim's shooting raises the question of whether it's time for Ontario to have consistent and uniform guidelines on how police should de-escalate situations before they lead to the use of force.
Many coroner's inquests into similar deaths over the past 20 years have made recommendations that are almost "carbon copied from each other," he said, such as increasing police training.
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