No one can know what 18-year-old Sammy Yatim was thinking when he drew a knife on a streetcar last weekend and sent its passengers scrambling. But few would argue that the teen, who was gunned down by police soon after, was acting rationally.
In the wake of his death, many are asking why someone who may have been in mental crisis ended up at the wrong end of a policeman's gun.
The question has been asked before. Following the police shooting of Michael Eligon in February 2012, the Police Services Board asked Chief Bill Blair to undertake a review of how the force deals with what it terms "emotionally disturbed" persons.
A year later, the 13-page review came back to the board. Its conclusion: that the force has an "enviable record" and that "in the overwhelming percentage of cases, officers are successful in resolving incidents involving emotionally disturbed persons safely and without resorting to apprehension or force."
The review defended current police practices, which the force says have been developed in consultation with psychiatric survivor groups and mental health experts.
The report noted that more than six hours of the 16-hour annual mandatory training for front-line officers is dedicated to "some aspect of dealing with the emotionally disturbed or the mentally ill." Officers are taught de-escalation techniques intended to decrease the likelihood of violence.
Since Eligon's death, the force has also expanded the use of mobile crisis intervention teams (MCITs). The two-person teams consist of a mental health nurse based out of a local hospital and a specially trained police officer. They are now available in 12 of the force's 17 divisions (including 14 Division, where Yatim was killed), and are called when the police are confronted with someone who is psychotic, suicidal, has gone off medication or is otherwise in crisis.
There is no shortage of work; a single team based out of St. Joseph's Health Care Centre served 244 people between April and June this year.
Sharon Lawlor, a nurse at Toronto East General Hospital and an MCIT member, says that since her team was launched in March, it has been effective in defusing potentially volatile situations.
"Especially if the person is agitated and had experience with the police before.... If you say, ‘I'm a nurse,' it settles them," says Lawlor. "They de-escalate very quickly."
But the use of MCITs is limited. Aside from the fact that they are not available in all divisions, they are only on call for 10 hours a day, and generally only until 11 pm. According to the April review, these operating hours are "based on a needs analysis and reflect the circumstances of their neighbourhoods."
Yatim was shot shortly after midnight, but even if an MCIT had been available then, it may not have made a difference. In order to keep nurses out of harm's way, MCITs are not used as first responders if a suspect is armed. Only once the crisis is safely "contained" is the MCIT employed.
In Yatim's case, this never happened. He was shot minutes after first responders arrived on the scene, and it's not clear if they even considered that he may have been experiencing a mental crisis.
"There is quite a lot of training. The unfortunate thing is that it doesn't get translated into police behaviour in the street," says Peter Rosenthal, a lawyer who will represent Eligon's family at an upcoming coroner's inquest. Rosenthal says cellphone footage of Yatim's shooting strongly suggests that police did not use the de-escalation techniques they were taught, which include engaging calmly with a subject and never issuing threats.
"They yell, ‘Drop the knife!' as opposed to approaching him according to training with softer words like, ‘Excuse me, could we help you? You seem to have a problem here,'" Rosenthal says.
Anita Wasowicz knows too well how the system can fail, despite the training police receive. Her sister, Sylvia Klibingaitis, was killed in 2011 in an incident remarkably similar to the shootings of Yatim and Eligon. Klibingaitis was bipolar and confronted an officer with a knife. He shot her in the chest.
"There are police who handle these situations properly," says Wasowicz. "The problem is inconsistencies. The inconsistencies are leading to these tragedies. We can't have police who really do not understand mental illness crises."
Since the police board ordered the review in April 2012, the Toronto Police Accountability Coalition says six more people have died in confrontations with the cops. Group spokesperson Anna Willats hopes the public outcry over Yatim's shooting will be a wake-up call.
"The chief and the police services board have to stop saying that the way we're doing things is just fine," she says. "With the numbers of people dying in these circumstances, this should be considered a crisis."