We expect to hear Sammy’s death will bring change

What rankles most in the aftermath of the shooting of Sammy Yatim—a teenager, in a mental crisis, alone on an empty streetcar, a Swiss Army knife in hand, shot and tasered to death by Toronto police—is the inability of our political leaders to address the situation.

Most of us want to hear some assurance that what police did was wrong, and that policies will be put in place to ensure this doesn’t  happen again to someone in mental crisis. Instead, there’s silence on the issue from Mayor Rob Ford and his sidekick Doug, as well as the other leaders at city hall. (Only Councillor Janet Davis has spoken out.) At Queens Park there’s the same silence.

Those more directly in charge of the police force have not been any better. Police Chief Bill Blair has yet to acknowledge that the policies and practises which lead to this death—the third person in mental crisis killed by Toronto police in three months—are not the policies and practises that we need in Toronto. Yes, he has appointed former judge Dennis O’Connor to report to him on Use-of-Force policies, and that’s a good thing, but everyone knows that unless there’s a will to change, then good recommendations just get left on the shelf.

In April, when he reported on policies about dealing with the mentally ill, Chief Blair stated that he was happy with the policies and training in place, and virtually nothing should change. He has yet to say that he’s ready to rethink this approach and agree that a team specially trained in de-escalation strategies should be the first responder in cases involving mental crisis.

The Police Services Board, which is the public body responsible for directing the police force, has expressed its condolences to the family, has again stated how much it is concerned about how police deal with those in mental crisis (it doesn’t mention that it endorsed the chief’s report in April to make no change), and stated it will ask a subcommittee to do even more consultation on the issue.

But in the end the board washes its hands of responsibility, stating: The Police Services Act imposes certain legal constraints on our ability to ensure accountability. We find that it hampers our ability to exercise the oversight that the public expects.

This sounds like what the board said about its inability to control police actions during the G20. Three years ago, as police arrested more than 1100 people and searched thousands more, the board took the position that legally it couldn’t really direct the chief on policy so most of the police actions were beyond its control.

But then former judge John Morden, who reviewed the board’s actions around the G20, said the board’s interpretation of the Police Services Act was wrong.

His review states on page 6: The board has limited its consultative mandate and viewed it as improper to ask questions about, comment on, and make recommendations concerning operational matters. The board’s approach in this regard has been wrong.

Morden made strong recommendations to ensure the board actually undertook its role to manage the police, including reviewing policies and practises. Apparently the board hasn’t learned much. It continues to pretend it isn’t really in control, that it is not really an effective manager.

The lesson from the Morden Review of the G20 fiasco is that if there’s no will to change, then change won’t happen.

One hopes that is not the lesson we’ll also learn from the O’Connor review which the chief has embarked on.

In my opinion, the second-degree murder charges against the officer who fired the nine shots at Sammy Yatim is beside the point.

The result of this charge, whether conviction or acquittal, will not force the board and the police service to adopt policies and practises which protect those in mental crisis from police harm.

What’s needed is the board and the chief agreeing that the Mobile Crisis Intervention Units consisting of a specially trained plainclothes officer and a mental-health nurse will be designated as first responders in cases involving someone in mental crisis.

It is a recommendation the board and chief have refused to accept for the last three years.

But there’s no reason why they can’t change now.

John Sewell is a former mayor of Toronto.

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