An amateur video that shows Toronto police shooting repeatedly at a teenager armed with a knife is "just one segment" of a broader picture that could look different once Ontario's police watchdog completes its investigation, the head of Toronto's police union says.
"I can see why people would have questions, and that's a natural thing, and we're going to get the answers" from the investigation of the province's Special Investigations Unit, said Mike McCormack, president of the Toronto Police Association.
"Let's let the SIU do its work," he told CBC's Matt Galloway, host of Toronto's morning radio show Metro Morning.
At issue is the shooting death of Sammy Yatim, 18, just after midnight ET Saturday.
The video, which has close to a million combined views on YouTube, shows police crowded around a streetcar with Yatim aboard.
Witnesses say Yatim was alone on the 505 Dundas streetcar near Trinity Bellwoods Park when he was shot. He had pulled a knife and ordered everybody off the streetcar, witnesses say.
On the video, nine gunshots are heard within 13 seconds, followed by the sound of a stun gun.
The incident has sparked anger throughout the city, including a protest that drew hundreds of people to the city's downtown. It is being investigated by the SIU, the police force itself, and will be reviewed today by the Ontario Ombudsman.
Joseph Nazar, a friend of the family of Sammy Yatim, told The Canadian Press that the young man’s surviving relatives do not blame the wider police force for "an action of one police officer."
For now, Nazar said Yatim’s relatives are simply trying to arrange for his burial.
Officer suspended with pay
The police officer who shot Yatim has been suspended with pay, and Toronto police Chief Bill Blair made a statement Monday saying that he wants answers as much as the public.
McCormack called both the suspension and the statement "extraordinary."
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- Watch raw video of the shooting (warning: graphic content)
He said he plans to speak with Blair about why he chose to suspend the officer to make sure the proper processes are happening. "Our officer has not been accused or charged with anything at this point, and there’s been no finding of misconduct in any way," McCormack said.
The union head said he's been in a similar situation and that lethal force is sometimes the appropriate response to someone armed with a knife. He said the public's questions about the incident are valid, but there are a number of variables that the video might not make plain, and people will have to wait for the SIU investigation.
He said he doesn't believe there is a crisis of confidence in the Toronto police. "We've been through this before where people start to rush to conclusions," he said.
McCormack said the force is legally compelled to co-operate with the SIU and that the investigation will be transparent, full, and frank.
Experts also urge patience
At least two experts agree with McCormack that people shouldn't rely solely on the video to draw conclusions.
"It's very early in this process to determine any errors," Mike Summerville, a former Toronto police officer who now trains law enforcement officials in the use of force, told CBC News.
He said the video can't stand alone, because viewers can't see what came before the video started, how Yatim is responding, whether the officer had a clear line of sight, or even if Yatim is in fact holding a knife.
Greg Brown, a criminologist at Nipissing University in North Bay, said he doesn't judge particular incidents without hearing from the officers themselves.
"I don't think anyone's in a position to judge right now," he said.
Brown said that given the public's growing ability to record events involving police, officers in Canada should be commended, because there are so few examples of bad behaviour caught on tape.
Should police officers have guns?
Peter Rosenthal, a lawyer representing the family of Toronto man Michael Eligon, who was fatally shot by police last year while armed with scissors, had a more critical view.
- Watch CBC's interview with Sammy Yatim's mother
He says the shooting is another in a series of "tragic, unfortunate and totally inappropriate police killings."
Rosenthal said training is in place, but that police don't follow it on the street, perhaps due to a "macho culture."
He said it may be time to reconsider whether all police officers should be armed, asking when was the last time a Toronto police officer shot a person who was an immediate threat.
"The killings are always this type," he said.
With files from The Canadian Press
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