I remember another man who had a knife in his hand and was shot dead by a Toronto police officer.
“He swung at us with a knife. We’ve discharged a shot . . . He’s still threatening us with a knife. We need an ambulance.”
That was from a police radio recording, played in court at the trial of Const. David Deviney, charged with manslaughter.
Lester Donaldson was sitting in his rooming house when five officers entered. They were responding to a call from another tenant who complained her phone line had been cut and that Donaldson had threatened to throw her out the window.
Cops were familiar with Donaldson, a paranoid schizophrenic with a history of violent behaviour. He’d once swung a shovel at an officer and been shot in the leg, which left him crippled.
Five officers in a tiny room, surrounding a suspect who refused to drop a small paring knife.
Twenty minutes the cops were there before Deviney shot Donaldson in the chest.
Because Donaldson, a man who could barely walk, had “lunged” at him with the knife.
Deviney was acquitted. Afterwards, outside court, he lit up a celebratory cigar.
That shooting occurred in 1988, decades before the invention of smart phones with video. It was Deviney’s word that Donaldson had lunged, backed up by witness officers.
Just as witness officers backed up the account Const. James Forcillo related to the jury in the shooting death of 18-year-old Sammy Yatim, including details those officers demonstrably could not know and couldn’t have seen: Yatim with a crazed look in his eyes after he’d already been hit three times; Yatim attempting to rise and continue his attack — though no attack had actually materialized — lifting his torso at a 45-degree angle, disproved by video evidence. Yet that had been Forcillo’s reason for firing six more times.
The second volley. The attempted murder of a dying man. Presciently added to the charges by the Crown a year after Forcillo was indicted for second degree murder, thereby splitting the incident into two separate components. The only charge that resulted in a guilty verdict against Forcillo.
Crown prosecutor Milan Rupic had derided much of the witness officers’ testimony, called them liars circling the police wagons.
We know cops lie. A nationwide Toronto Star investigation in 2012 showed judges are frequently finding that officers lie under oath, resulting in cases dismissed. But in his instructions, Justice Edward Then directed the Forcillo jurors to ignore Rupic’s comments. “The police are as likely or not to tell the truth as any other witness.”
His Honour is a wise judge, but he has no way of knowing that.
This jury was not convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that the first volley was an unreasonable use of force.
Go ahead and try to quantify reasonable. That was the jury’s arduous task, and we know where they landed.
The Crown could have done a more muscular job of examining Forcillo’s own record and admission that he’d drawn his gun “about a dozen times” in just three and a half years on the force, a suspicious statistical skew. Why so quick to the gun in general? That might have gone a long way toward discrediting Forcillo’s rationale for shooting Yatim at all.
As first reported by National Post columnist Christie Blatchford, Forcillo’s unusual reliance on his firearm had been detected by the force’s early warning radar a year before Yatim boarded that Dundas streetcar. The system triggers an alert whenever an officer points his firearm at someone three times in a rolling 12-month period.
“His flag came up a couple of times, and they pulled him into an office and said, ‘Look, because you’ve been flagged a certain number of times, we have to review your use of force to make sure it’s OK,” Forcillo’s defence lawyer Peter Brauti told the Star’s Alyshah Hasham after the verdicts Monday. “He never heard another word.
“To me, it was a non-issue. I understand why people might say this could be something of concern, but at the end of the day, the Toronto police service never thought it was a concern when they looked at the individual times that he did it.”
They should have. Forcillo had tendencies.
Juries have tendencies too. No police officer in Ontario has ever been convicted of murder.
How many times in the past — without video — has a purported “lunge” or an alleged “reaching for a gun” been accepted as God’s honest truth because it as spoken by a cop? Even with video evidence — witness the notorious Rodney King beating — cops have skated.
Police are eager enough to promote the value of video when it serves their purpose. The first thing investigators do after a crime is look for footage and images from surveillance cameras in the area. Civilians are encouraged to turn over their cellphone videos as a public duty. But when the evidence implicates a cop, it’s autopsied from here to next week so that usefulness is deflected, buried beneath mounds of distracting minutiae, or its inclusion is furiously repulsed in pre-trial hearings.
After Const. Deviney was charged with manslaughter, police were enraged. Hundreds staged impromptu sit-ins in their patrol cars; some left their firearms at home in protest. Donaldson’s death came at a time when Toronto cops were under the microscope for shooting suspects who, like the victim, were black. Art Lymer, then head of the police association, warned police would henceforth “be reluctant to arrest black people, and they’ll just take over the city.”
Today we have a black police chief.
Lymer’s ridiculous and racist comment was wrong. Police have demonstrated no hesitation about arresting blacks or anybody else. They do what they believe necessary because that’s the job and nearly always with justification in thousands of call-outs each year.
But remove the colour descriptor and Lymer’s scare tactic was echoed Monday, 28 years later, by his successor.
“Clearly this sends a chilling message to our members,” said union president Mike McCormack. “Are they going to hesitate when they should take action? What is this going to mean as far as front-line enforcement when we have officers out there faced with these situations? Are they going to hesitate, is it going to cause a safety concern for our front-line officers and the public?”
There is not an iota of proof a cop in Toronto has been killed or wounded because he or she hesitated. It’s urban fiction. It’s cop propaganda.
McCormack: “I can tell you right now, I’ve already had a lot of feedback from our front-line officers. They are shocked and dismayed with this verdict.”
Most of us were not-so-shocked. But definitely dismayed — by the acquittals.