Forcillo case reveals shifting attitude toward cops’ dealing with those in crisis

A guilty finding against a Toronto police officer who gunned down a knife-wielding teen on an empty streetcar suggests the public has become more sensitive toward how police deal with those in crisis, some experts said Tuesday.

TORONTO — A guilty finding against a Toronto police officer who gunned down a knife-wielding teen on an empty streetcar suggests the public has become more sensitive toward how police deal with those in crisis, some experts said Tuesday.

At the same time, they said, the prosecution of Const. James Forcillo has highlighted the need to address systemic issues around police training and the funding of mental health services.

“The public no longer has an appetite for police simply saying, ‘This is use of force’,” said Frances Jewell, executive director with the Mental Health Rights Coalition in Hamilton.

“The conversation has started but there’s a disconnect between what police are saying has changed and what has changed.”

In what has been described as a “compromise” verdict, a jury acquitted Forcillo on Monday of second-degree murder for shooting Sammy Yatim, 18, but found him guilty of attempted murder for continuing to fire after the dying teen had fallen to the floor.

Forcillo’s union warned the verdict would put officers at further risk by causing them to hesitate before responding to dangerous situations. On the other hand, the lawyer for Yatim’s family suggested too many officers have been literally getting away with murder by claiming self-defence.

Dorothy Cotton, a forensic psychologist in Kingston, Ont., said the verdict is a sign attitudes toward the mentally ill — and police accountability — have shifted.

“The significance of this whole trial is really in the fact that there was a trial and he was found guilty of anything at all,” said Cotton, who has worked with the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police and the Mental Health Commission of Canada.

“In contrast to attitudes we had in the past toward people who appear to be crazy or out of their minds, society as a whole is saying that this is not the norm and we can’t tolerate this any more.”

Statistics Canada data show about one million interactions between police and people in some kind of mental health crisis each year. The vast majority end without serious incident. For others, however, the result is what advocates consider an unnecessary fatality as well as trauma for both the families and officers involved.

Advocates have long called for better police training for dealing with people in crisis. They insist officers should do everything possible to defuse a volatile situation before resorting to Tasers or firearms.

For their part, police insist they are doing what they can to help. In B.C., for example, new and seasoned officers are required to undergo training on dealing with the mentally ill. Other services say their training does emphasize de-escalation techniques.

Jewell, however, was skeptical, noting Forcillo barked orders and shot Yatim dead less than one minute after arriving on scene.

“Where on earth did they get the message that was a de-escalation technique?” she said. “I must say I’m jaded in that we hear that the changes will happen and yet they don’t.”

Still, training and accountability issues aside, mental health advocates say the Yatim killing — and others like it — demonstrate a crying need for more funding of supports for the mentally ill to avert potentially deadly confrontations with officers in the first place.

All too often, they note, people finding themselves on the wrong end of an officer’s gun had tried unsuccessfully to find help for their worsening mental health.

A few years ago, for example, Richard Kachkar went on a rampage with a stolen snowplow, prompting Toronto police Sgt. Ryan Russell to open fire in an effort to stop him. In that tragic case, Russell was run down and killed. Kachkar, who for weeks had sparked concerns about his deteriorating behaviour, was found not criminally responsible.

Camille Quenneville, who heads the Canadian Mental Health Association in Ontario, said such situations highlight the need for 24-hour mobile-crisis intervention teams. She also said her organization’s new crisis centre in London, Ont., has succeeded in taking calls that might otherwise have gone to 911 or the police.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

A nurse gets a swab ready at a temporary COVID-19 test clinic in Montreal, on Friday, May 15, 2020. Health Canada has reversed course on home test kits for COVID-19, saying it will now review applications for such devices. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson
Alberta declines Ontario’s request to send health-care workers

Alberta is “not in a position” to send health-care workers out of… Continue reading

The Red Deer Rebels allowed four straight goals from the Medicine Hat Tigers Friday night on the road. (Photo by Rob Wallator/ Red Deer Rebels)
Tigers hand Red Deer Rebels 10th straight loss

Tigers 4 Rebels 2 Through 17 games in the shortened WHL season,… Continue reading

Meghan Huizing has been selected by Red Deer Catholic Regional Schools as a finalist for the Alberta School Boards Association (ASBA) 2021 Edwin Parr Award. (Photo courtesy of Red Deer Regional Catholic Schools)
Red Deer Catholic names finalist for Edwin Parr Award

Meghan Huizing from St. Gregory the Great Catholic School in Blackfalds has… Continue reading

GrammaLink-Africa members are participating in the Stride to Turn the Tide campaign until June 30. (Contributed photo)
Red Deer group walking to raise money for African grandmothers

A group of central Albertans will be walking every day until the… Continue reading

Red Deer Public Schools will not pilot the new draft curriculum at its elementary schools. (File photo contributed by Red Deer Public Schools)
UPDATED: Red Deer Public Schools says no to piloting new curriculum

Alberta Teachers’ Association support school boards

Montreal Canadiens' Tyler Toffoli celebrates his goal past Calgary Flames goaltender Jacob Markstrom during second-period NHL hockey action in Montreal on Friday, April 16, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson
Toffoli scores twice, Canadiens put some distance on Flames with 2-1 win

Toffoli scores twice, Canadiens put some distance on Flames with 2-1 win

Canadian prop Jake Ilnicki savouring life in Seattle, looks forward to facing Arrows

Canadian prop Jake Ilnicki savouring life in Seattle, looks forward to facing Arrows

Corey Conners, of Canada, hits out of a bunker on the seventh hole during the final round of the Masters golf tournament in Augusta, Ga., Sunday, April 11, 2021. Conners notched six birdies on his back nine to take the lead after his second round of the RBC Heritage on Friday. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Matt Slocum
Canadian Corey Conners surges into lead at PGA Tour’s RBC Heritage

Canadian Corey Conners surges into lead at PGA Tour’s RBC Heritage

Patrick Marleau poised to break Gordie Howe’s games record

Patrick Marleau poised to break Gordie Howe’s games record

Leylah Annie Fernandez of Canada serves to Marie Bouzkova of the Czech Republic in round 1 of the Rogers Cup women's tennis tournament in Toronto, Monday August 5, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mark Blinch
Rebecca Marino propels Canada into 2-0 lead over Serbia at Billie Jean King Cup

Rebecca Marino propels Canada into 2-0 lead over Serbia at Billie Jean King Cup

Dalton Kellett pulls out of the pits during a practice session for the Indianapolis 500 auto race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, in Indianapolis, Thursday, Aug. 13, 2020. Dalton Kellett is pleased his second career season in IndyCar will be different than his first, which started on an elaborate iRacing rig in his home office in Indianapolis because of COVID-19 restrictions. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Darron Cummings
Canada’s Dalton Kellett set for a more stable season as an IndyCar driver

Canada’s Dalton Kellett set for a more stable season as an IndyCar driver

Canada head coach Bev Priestman reacts during the women's international friendly soccer match between England and Canada at Bet365 stadium in Stoke on Trent, England, Tuesday, April 13, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Rui Vieira
Canadian women get peek at their possible road at Olympic soccer tournament

Canadian women get peek at their possible road at Olympic soccer tournament

Head coach John Tait talks to his team as Canada takes on Japan in women's sevens rugby action at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on Saturday, Aug. 6, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Rugby Canada says probe into complaint from members of women’s 7s team is complete

Rugby Canada says probe into complaint from members of women’s 7s team is complete

Most Read