Toronto police conduct under spotlight in Yatim shooting

Watch: Numerous police shootings raise questions about response. Jackson Proskow reports.

This an updated version of a story originally published July 29. 

TORONTO – A city searching for answers may never know what went through Sammy Yatim’s mind in the moments before the 18-year-old, wielding a knife on an empty streetcar, was shot to death by police in the early hours of Saturday morning.

Ontario’s Special Investigations Unit has begun an investigation into Yatim’s death, to review actions taken by Toronto police officers.

But to Coun. Janet Davis, it’s clear Yatim was a person “in crisis.”

“I believe this is the very situation where we need a crisis intervention team to step in to de-escalate a situation and to provide the kind of support someone like this needs at that time,” Davis told Global News.

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Currently there is no evidence Yatim displayed any indication of mental illness.  But his shooting death is being compared to similar cases that did involve mental illness.

Toronto’s Mobile Crisis Intervention Teams (MCIT) consist of a police officer paired with a mental health crisis nurse, working as secondary response squads that move in after police ensure a scene is safe. There are five such teams in Toronto covering 12 of 17 police divisions for various shifts during the day, typically from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.

MCITs assess the person in crisis and connect the person to appropriate follow-up services.

Currently,  the online description says MCITs do not respond to situations where a person is under the influence of drugs or alcohol or if a person is carrying a weapon.

However, Toronto East General MCIT nurse Sharon Lawlor says weapons have been a part of crisis calls in her experience—though that could mean something like a pencil sharpener, and not necessarily a knife or gun.

“We’ve gone out to people who have weapons,” Lawlor told Global News. “What will happen is, because I’m a civilian, the police will secure the scene, or make sure it’s safe for me to be there… So we wouldn’t be going where somebody is waving a sword…but we could be on the sides and help with the de-escalation.”

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Lawlor says once the scene is secure, she’ll work on “de-escalating the person,” which she describes as using techniques taught in mental health nursing.

“Each individual is so different, you just have to change your skill for every person,” she said. “It comes over years of experience and just dealing with people and good rapport…It’s using eye contact, the way we put our hands and an open way of talking to them. We paraphrase what they say so they understand that we’re listening to them…it makes them feel that what they’re saying is being heard.”

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Davis believes MCITs, like the one Lawlor works on, should be expanded to cover longer hours.

“I think it’s pretty clear that MCITs need to be working around the clock hours as well to be available in the evenings and on the weekends when a situation like this might arise,” Davis said.

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Anita Szigeti, a Toronto-based mental health lawyer, says Toronto needs to heed Davis’ advice when dealing with those who are suffering from emotional or mental health crises.

“People in emotional crisis tend not to respond to having a gun pointed at them and being shouted at,” Szigeti said.

Davis also asked why Yatim wasn’t simply isolated in the streetcar.

“This individual is completely isolated and contained on that a streetcar. Why wouldn’t you just close that door, leave him in there, and then engage him in a dialogue?” she said. “De-escalate the situation, get a megaphone, tell him to open a window, ask him nicely to pass over the knife and have a conversation with him.”

Lawlor notes that if a person in crisis is agitated, sometimes she can act as a neutral buffer, especially if the person is scared or has had issues with police in the past.

“A lot of times when people are scared, they will respond really well to somebody saying, ‘I’m a nurse, and I’m here to help you,’” she said.

The shooting death of Yatim is drawing comparisons to the death of Michael Eligon, who was shot by police in 2012 after escaping from Toronto East General Hospital.

Eligon was shot in the middle of an East York street while carrying two pairs of scissors and wearing only a hospital gown and socks.

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The Special Investigations Unit found no criminal wrongdoing by Toronto police in the shooting, but SIU director Ian Scott did acknowledge in his findings that legitimate questions need to be addressed about how police are trained to deal with mentally ill people.

An inquest into the deaths of Eligon and two other people is slated to begin in the fall. Szigeti, who helped launch the combined inquest, thinks investigating three deaths together could generate more recommendations with how police deal with people in emotional and mental health crises.

In response to the shooting, Toronto East General Hospital and community members including councillor Davis worked to petition for a MCIT in the East York area.

“The conclusion I came to coming out of the Michael Eligon shooting death was that frontline officers need support and assistance when dealing with people with mental health issues or are in crisis,” Davis said, adding that this is yet another tragic event that could have been avoided.

“We need to revisit, is there enough MCIT coverage in the city? Are police officers getting sufficient training? What kind of direction and what kind of procedures are in place to ensure we employ all of the resources to situations like this to avoid another young person losing their life?”

Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair expressed his condolences to the family of the 18-year-old victim.

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“As a father, I can only imagine the terrible grief and the need for answers,” said Blair during a Monday morning press conference. “We will do our best to ensure those answers are provided.”

Blair refused to comment on the specifics of the case but did promise to fully cooperate with the SIU investigation.

Global News has compiled a list of shootings involving the police and people “in crisis”

Feb. 3, 2012: Michael Eligon is shot by police after escaping from Toronto East General Hospital. He was carrying two pairs of scissors. The hospital and community successfully petition for an MCIT to be deployed in the East York area.

Oct. 7, 2011: Sylvia Klibingaitis, 52, is shot by police after calling 911 and telling the operator she had a knife and was going to commit a crime.

Aug. 29, 2010: Reyal Jardine-Douglas, 25, is shot by police after jumping out of a TTC bus. The Pickering man suffered from paranoia and was carrying a knife. A coroner’s investigation was called into the incident.

Feb. 16, 2008: Byron Debassige, 28, is shot five times by police after taking two lemons from a convenience store. He had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, An inquest called to review the incident recommended further officers training in mental health issues.

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– With files from Mark Carcasole and Erika Tucker

Editors note:  This story has been updated to include comments from MCIT nurse Sharon Lawlor to add context to the statement that they do not attend scenes with weapons, as well as what the role of a MCIT nurse is at the scene of a distressed person situation.