O’Connor’s law firm has police links

A memorial set up for Sammy Yatim, who was shot by police while aboard a streetcar, near where the shooting happened. July 29, 2013. Jeremy Cohn / Global News

TORONTO – The retired judge retained to assist in an internal review of the Toronto police force following the death of an 18-year-old is a member of a law firm which has acted for Toronto officers in civil suits.

Police Chief Bill Blair announced Monday that Dennis O’Connor would help him in a review of police use of force in dealing with emotionally disturbed persons.

The law firm O’Connor is with — Borden Ladner Gervais — has acted for the insurers of the Toronto Police Service in civil suits, some of which include allegations of the wrongful use of lethal force, Blair said Wednesday in a release.

Lawyers at BLG are currently acting on a number of such matters, he said.

“Mr. O’Connor and I are satisfied that his association with BLG will not, in any way, impair his ability to give me sound advice on the matters I have asked him to review,” Blair said.

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Blair also stressed he hasn’t asked O’Connor to investigate or make factual findings about past incidents.

“My request of Mr. O’Connor is in the nature of a forward-looking review,” he said.

“Specifically, I have asked Mr. O’Connor to review our policies, procedures, and training, as well as the equipment used by members of the Toronto Police Service, and to conduct an international review of best practices to provide me with advice and make recommendations on how we can improve our response to these difficult and dangerous situations,” Blair said.

Blair called for the review following the case of Sammy Yatim, 18, who died last month after being shot and Tasered by police on an empty streetcar.

Hundreds of people took to the streets to demand justice for Yatim’s death, which was captured on surveillance and cellphone videos. Nine shots can be heard on the videos following shouts for Yatim to drop the knife. The final six appear to come after Yatim had already fallen to the floor of the streetcar.

A review by the chief of police is mandated under the Police Services Act in Yatim’s death because the Special Investigations Unit is involved, but Blair said Monday that O’Connor’s review will look beyond his case, and will include an international review of established best practices.

A coroner’s inquest this fall will examine the deaths of three people who may have had mental health issues when they approached Toronto police officers with weapons and were shot and killed.

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Reviews were conducted in all of those cases, Blair said, but they were internal reviews.

Ontario’s ombudsman has also launched an investigation, probing what kind of direction the provincial government provides to police for defusing conflict situations.

Andre Marin has said Yatim’s shooting raises the question of whether it’s time for Ontario to have consistent and uniform guidelines on how police should de-escalate situations before they lead to the use of force.

The last time a Toronto police chief asked for outside help to conduct a similar review was in 2001, when Julian Fantino retained Justice George Ferguson to conduct a review of police misconduct following allegations of corruption in its drug squad.

O’Connor could not be reached for comment on Blair’s statement on Wednesday evening.

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