‘Compromise’ verdict in James Forcillo trial gets mixed reaction
Torstar News Service
Jan 25 2016
There were the reviews and the reports and the lawsuits.
There were the panel discussions and the studies. The urgent protests and the tearful press conferences.
There was inquest, after , after inquest.
But there had never been anything like this.
For those who have argued for decades that Toronto police officers are too quick to shoot, too reluctant to use words over force, all too often allowed to act with impunity, the murder trial of Const. James Forcillo was an unprecedented shot at justice. The issue of police use-of-force would finally have its day in court.
For some, it was deeply personal.
“Feels like a referendum is being held in secret to evaluate our worth,” said Pat Capponi, chair of the Toronto Police board’s mental health committee and psychiatric survivor, as the 11 jurors retired Wednesday to deliberate Forcillo’s fate and, unofficially, much more.
From the day Forcillo, 32-year-old cop, husband and father of two became an accused murderer for an on-duty shooting, his case became a referendum on so much: police accountability, public trust, even who and what we expect police officers to be in our modern society.
Monday’s verdict — not guilty of second-degree murder and manslaughter, but guilty of attempted murder — now carries significance far greater than one case and will have reverberations across the city, the country, and beyond.
But the decision, perceived by some to have been a compromise, is garnering mixed reaction.
“Juries don’t like to convict cops,” but the verdict in this case is a reasonable halfway point, said Jennifer Chambers, the coordinator of a mental health advocacy group, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health’s Empowerment Council.
“They couldn’t know for sure if Forcillo feared for his life initially . . . but he surely couldn’t have when the poor boy was on the ground with three bullets in him.”
Some legal experts say the not guilty verdict for second-degree murder makes a significant statement about a central dilemma in any case of a fatal police shootings: how do you determine whether the fear that the officer claims to have experienced was justified?
“I think sends a very dangerous message in terms of holding officers accountable in those circumstances,” said David Tanovich, a law professor at the University of Windsor. “In a confined space, where the person doesn’t drop the weapon immediately, if that situation arises again, officers will continue to potentially act in the way that he did.”
Scot Wortley, a University of Toronto criminologist, said the case may establish future jurisprudence on police use of force by establishing what constitutes an imminent threat and determining when fear is justified.
“What we have to decide is: what if officers are fearful, but they’re wrong? What if officers make a bad judgment call?”
While it may send a mixed message about appropriate levels of force, the verdict is being considered a victory for video evidence. At Yatim’s trial, citizen-shot and surveillance video that captured the shooting was virtually a star witness repeatedly called upon, the sound of nine shots often echoing through the courtroom.
For Peter Rosenthal — a veteran Toronto lawyer who has represented families of people shot dead by police for more than two decades — it was the video that made the Yatim case different.
In so many police shootings, it isn’t clear what transpired in the final moments leading to the shooting, he said. “It’s unlikely that there would more compelling evidence than the video in this case in any future case.”
The video also shows how Forcillo did not attempt to engage Yatim in conversation, considered by many to a vital part of de-escalation.
Capponi says she feels relieved by the results of the so-called “referendum,” and hopes the verdict sends a strong message about the importance of de-escalation. Forcillo, she said, “seemed utterly contemptuous of de-escalation, which if used would have saved the young man’s life, and Forcillo’s too.”
The recommendation was also made by Supreme Court Justice Frank Iacobucci, who, after Yatim’s death, was commissioned by Toronto police to review the service’s use of force. His report contained 84 recommendations, all aimed at the stopping Toronto police from killing even one person.
Iacobucci also made the sober acknowledgement that police are bearing the brunt of an ineffective social safety net.
“As a result of both the weak mental health system from an organizational and resource standpoint, and the high volume of police interactions with people in crisis, the TPS has, in effect, become part of the mental healthcare system,” he wrote.
Responding to the verdict Monday, Toronto police chief Mark Saunders reiterated the force’s commitment to implementing Iacobucci’s report — and that he knows the power police officers have “come with enormous responsibility to use it wisely.”
“I promise today that while I believe we have made significant strides, with implementing the recommendations of the Iacobucci report, the recent inquiries, we have only begun. We will continue to scour the world for ideas, programs, approaches and techniques that can provide additional protection for those in need.”
Bill Yatim, Yatim’s father, said it’s difficult to come to terms with the fact his son didn’t get the help he needed.
“I often wonder what would have happened,” he said in a statement Monday, “if he had been able to reach me and if the police response had been different.”