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The Killing of Sammy Yatim

The death of Sammy Yatim unleashed a torrent of anti-police outrage. For most Torontonians, the video was the verdict. But what really happened on the Dundas streetcar that night? The untold story of the cop who pulled the trigger—and why

The Killing

(Image: John Hanley)

Just before midnight on July 26, 2013, Sammy Yatim boarded a westbound Dundas streetcar and made his way to the back. He was wearing the standard teen trifecta of baseball cap, black T-shirt and jeans that hung loosely off his slight frame. Despite the late hour, the streetcar was filling up. It was a Friday night in the middle of the summer, and Toronto was hopping: Justin Bieber at the ACC, Kiss at the Molson Amphitheatre, a beer festival at the CNE grounds and the Jays hosting the Houston Astros at the Dome.

Four young women got on around Spadina and found seats in the back, near Yatim. Soon ­after, he unzipped his fly and pulled out his penis. The other passengers heard a piercing scream and turned around to see one of the women jump out of her seat. Yatim had a stiletto switchblade and had tried to slash the woman’s throat. The panic onboard was instantaneous. The crowd surged forward on the streetcar, some rushing down the steps to the back exit, most pushing toward the front to get as far away from Yatim as possible. Frantic passengers were screaming to get out as Yatim inched up the aisle toward them, but the doors wouldn’t open on the moving streetcar and the steps quickly clogged with people. Yatim shouted, “Nobody get off the fucking streetcar.” All the while, he had the knife outstretched in one hand and his penis in the other.

The streetcar driver saw the stampede behind him and stopped the car at Bellwoods Avenue, opening both sets of doors. Passengers pushed and stumbled their way out. Some landed hard on the pavement before scrambling away. Inside the streetcar, one more rider was backing up the aisle, dragging his bike in front of him like a shield as Yatim advanced with his eyes wide and his jaw clenched. By the time the passenger reached the front door, Yatim had switched gears and was telling everyone to get off the streetcar, so the passenger jumped out, bike in tow.

Behind Yatim, the car looked to be deserted. Suddenly, a male passenger who had been hiding between two seats popped his head up and crept over to the back doors. He stood there for several seconds, as if trying to guess whether Yatim was going to stay on the streetcar or go out the front, probably to avoid running straight into him. He decided to take his chances and ran out the back.

Then it was just Yatim and the driver, who’d waited ­until all the passengers were off ­before trying to make his exit. By this time, several ­people outside had phoned 911, inc­luding one of the women from the back of the streetcar, who was crying hysterically into her phone, saying, “A man tried to kill me.” The police were seconds away. Yatim and the driver seemed to see the flashing lights through the front window at the same moment. The driver bolted just as Yatim lunged at him with the knife.

Yatim was alone at the front of the streetcar when ­Constable James Forcillo and his partner, the first cops on the scene, rushed to the open doorway. The only information Forcillo had when he arrived was that a man had tried to stab a girl on the streetcar. As the “roll-up” cop, Forcillo was the de facto officer in charge until a division sergeant got there. He pulled out his gun, a police-issue Glock 22 with hollow-point bullets, and stood roughly 12 feet away from the door, legs splayed, aiming squarely at Yatim. Like all Toronto police, Forcillo had been trained to take out his weapon only if he believed lethal force might be necessary. In other words, when a cop pulls his gun, it’s never a bluff. He’s prepared to use it.

“Drop the knife,” Forcillo ordered.

“No. You’re a fucking pussy,” Yatim replied.

Forcillo asked his partner to radio for a Taser to subdue ­Yatim. In Toronto, only division sergeants are allowed to carry Tasers. Normally, there are two road sergeants for each shift, but that night there was only one on duty for 14 Division, which covers seven downtown neighbourhoods—the Annex, Kensington-Chinatown, Palmerston–Little Italy, Christie-Ossington, Trinity Bellwoods, South Parkdale and the waterfront. Forcillo’s sergeant could have been in any one of them.

Over the cacophony of competing sirens as other officers arrived at the scene, Forcillo and two other cops shouted at Yatim half a dozen times to drop his weapon. Every time a cop barked, “Drop the knife,” Yatim’s answer was the same: “You’re a fucking pussy.”

Behind Forcillo, passengers were talking about what had just happened on the streetcar, some of them crying. It was Forcillo’s job to contain the scene and make sure Yatim didn’t get off the streetcar wielding a weapon. He could have reached Forcillo in one leap. If he jumped out into the crowd with his knife, Forcillo wouldn’t have been able to use his gun without endangering bystanders. He warned Yatim, “If you take one more step in this direction, that’s it for you, I’m telling you right now.” Yatim turned away and stepped back into the interior of the streetcar, then appeared to make a decision. He turned to face Forcillo and took a step toward the exit. Another cop shouted “Drop the—” but didn’t get to finish his sentence before Forcillo fired three quick shots. Yatim crumpled to the floor of the streetcar, still holding the knife. Cops were yelling “Drop it” when Forcillo squeezed off six more shots. He was the only officer to fire his gun. The cop standing on his right had his gun drawn but didn’t fire. His partner, standing a few feet to his left, never took her gun out of her holster.

Almost a dozen cops raced over. Yatim was still moving, still clenching the knife, when the division sergeant arrived, darted through the front doors and Tasered him. The crackle of the stun gun was unmistakable. Several more officers boarded the streetcar. One of them kicked the knife away from Yatim’s hand, and it hurtled into the air, clattering against the streetcar window. ­Another began CPR. Forcillo, ­standing in the ­middle of the crush of cops clustered at the front door, abruptly wheeled away and stood alone for a few seconds. An officer walked over and put his hand on Forcillo’s shoulder, leading him from the scene.

Police continued to do chest compressions on Yatim until the paramedics arrived and took over. He was pronounced dead at St. Michael’s Hospital early in the morning of July 27.

Within an hour, a cellphone video was posted to YouTube and quickly went viral. It was reposted on Facebook and ­Twitter and led every newscast across the city. Toronto was transfixed by the last 90 seconds of Sammy Yatim’s life. A city-wide consensus quickly formed: this 18-year-old didn’t have to die. The police could have held their fire and waited for the ­Taser. They could have tried to talk Yatim down instead of working him up, or shot the knife out of his hand, or used ­pepper spray. There had to be a non-lethal option available. And the question on everyone’s mind was, what kind of cop shoots a troubled teenager nine times?