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Sammy Yatim's mother continues fight for justice 10 years after son's death

TORONTO — Ten years after her son was fatally shot on an empty Toronto streetcar, Sammy Yatim's mother said she's still fighting for justice. Eighteen-year-old Yatim was shot multiple times by Const.

TORONTO — Ten years after her son was fatally shot on an empty Toronto streetcar, Sammy Yatim's mother said she's still fighting for justice.

Eighteen-year-old Yatim was shot multiple times by Const. James Forcillo while standing alone holding a small knife on the streetcar on July 27, 2013. Cellphone footage of the shooting posted online set off a wave of public outrage and calls for police reform.

On the 10th anniversary of her son's death, Yatim's mother said she worries her calls for change in policing and justice for her son are no longer being heard. 

"I wanted to do something actually to honour my son, but they left me disabled. I feel they disappointed me, the police, the government, the system – they failed," Sahar Bahadi told The Canadian Press.

"I promised Sammy to fight for justice for him. I want to continue that, in spite of all the problems I face. I miss him, I miss him a lot."

Bahadi said her family is still suffering because of delays to an inquest into Yatim's death and insufficient progress on recommended police reforms. She is also still awaiting the resolution of a lawsuit she filed against Toronto police. 

Forcillo was the only officer to open fire on Yatim, firing three shots that caused the teen to fall to the floor of the streetcar, followed by a second volley of six more shots. 

In 2016, a jury acquitted Forcillo of the more serious charge of second-degree murder related to the first round of shots — which the court heard killed the teen — but convicted the officer of attempted murder related to the second volley, fired while Yatim was lying on his back.

Forcillo was sentenced to six and a half years behind bars and began serving prison time in 2017 after an unsuccessful appeal. He was granted full parole in 2020.

A long-awaited inquest into Yatim's death was set to start last November but continues to be delayed after Forcillo argued in a last-minute motion that it should examine the possibility Yatim died by "suicide by cop" – a theory rejected by the presiding coroner.

Bahadi said her son's death has left her unable to work and relying on government assistance payments. Her whole family, particularly her daughter, is struggling, she said. 

"My daughter, she's so sad, she even cannot improve her life, she couldn't forget her brother," Bahadi said.

A lawyer for Yatim's younger sister said she is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.

"She looked up to Sammy and revered him. She has not recovered from her tragic loss," lawyer Ed Upenieks wrote in an email.

Bahadi said she is still seeking changes to a policing culture she argued is too quick to resort to violence and lethal force.

In 2016, Ontario ombudsman Paul Dube made a number of recommendations to the province in the wake of Yatim's death, including the creation of a standardized, mandatory de-escalation training for police forces. 

At a news conference last summer, he called out the government's "painfully slow" progress on implementing the recommendations and said he is even considering a second investigation.

On the 10-year anniversary of Yatim's death, Dube's office said the ombudsman is "discouraged" by the lack of progress and slow pace of change.

"The Ministry of the Solicitor General has implemented a new use-of-force model, but there has been no clear progress on the remaining recommendations to date," the office wrote in a statement Thursday.

"He has continued to call on the Ministry of the Solicitor General to specifically address de-escalation through a regulation that requires officers to de-escalate situations before using force, whenever possible." 

The Office of Solicitor General Michael Kerzner said the government has updated Ontario's use-of-force model and incorporated the training aid at both recruit and experienced officer levels. Officers must undergo use-of-force and firearms requalification training every 12 months, it said.

"We’ll continue to work with our partners to refine and continuously improve the framework and enhance police training,” it wrote in a statement. 

A separate probe of the Yatim shooting by Justice Frank Iacobucci resulted in 84 recommendations for Toronto police, including several related to crisis training and use of force. A police report indicates 98 per cent of the recommendations had been implemented in some form by 2018. 

Yatim's death resulted in important changes to police training for dealing with people in crisis, said Alok Mukherjee, who was chair of the Toronto Police Services Board at the time. 

He pointed to a pilot project that deploys community workers to calls for mental health issues or crisis as an example. But the need for improvements remain, he said. 

"As I look back from what happened 10 years ago, I see progress and I see new areas of potential concern that call for constant oversight and constant review," said Mukherjee.

"I'm not so sure that when it comes to de-escalation, when it comes to restraints on use of force, that the police service has made as much progress."

Earlier this year, police boosted officers' presence on the Toronto Transit Commission for nearly two months in response to several high-profile cases of violence. Mukherjee said that brought to mind what he said were policing faults on the night of Yatim's death.

"What was apparent from the Sammy Yatim incident was that the police responded, but they did not have a chain of command. They did not have preparation, there was no plan on how to deal with Sammy," he said.

"My concern was that we were again responding in such a rapid fashion by simply deploying police officers."

For Yatim's mother, the recommendations made after her son died are still "just writing on paper." 

"They have to do their work properly," she said of police. "There is no need for violence, especially for people like kids ... Sammy or even other kids, they were not criminal."

Bahadi said she wanted to mark the decade since her son's death simply by remembering Yatim, who she called gentle, intelligent, polite, artistic, athletic, but above all, a protector of his mother and sister.

"Still now, I cannot imagine how that happened. There is a lot of pain and suffering," she said. "It's the same feeling as if it happened yesterday."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 27, 2023.

Tyler Griffin, The Canadian Press