Criminal Consequences For Police Officers in Canada Are Rare When a Civilian Dies

Const. James Forcillo leaves court in Toronto on May 16, 2016. A jury found him guilty of attempted murder of 18-year-old Sammy Yatim on a streetcar in Toronto in 2013. Forcillo is one of two officers convicted of 18 charged after 461 people died in encounters with police in Canada over 18 years. He is appealing his conviction.

Critics say changes are needed to a system that sees hundreds of people die following fatal police encounters, and virtually no criminal consequences for officers.

The comments come in reaction to a CBC News investigation that found criminal charges were laid against 18 police officers involved in fatal encounters since 2000, with only two ending in convictions. The research shows 461 people have died in encounters with police over 18 years.

Police representatives say with the amount of scrutiny following a fatality, if an officer isn’t charged, it means charges weren’t warranted. But critics say the way these cases are investigated needs to be examined in depth.
“It’s shocking when you look at the numbers,” said Peter Rosenthal, a Toronto-based lawyer who has represented families of victims of police shootings.

“In my opinion, in many cases where there’d be a real possibility of a conviction, they’re not even charged.”
He says if more officers were charged, it might make other cops think twice before pulling the trigger.

Winnipeg-based defence attorney James Lowry understands the barriers to investigating cops, because for 33 years he was a Toronto police officer. Part of his job included investigating corruption in Toronto’s police ranks while working in internal affairs.

Gathering evidence always proved difficult because officers are often reluctant to betray a fellow officer, he said.

He calls it the “blue wall of silence.”

“It is the idea that you don’t want to place a fellow officer not only in harm’s way, but in harm’s way from an investigation,” he said. “So that’s what I ran into a significant amount of time as an internal investigator. People not wanting to talk, people hesitant to talk, people not disclosing things.”

We don’t just lay charges just for the sake of laying charges. There has to be evidence.

— Tom Stamatakis, Canadian Police Association

Tom Stamatakis, president of the Canadian Police Association, says the idea that more officers need to be charged is misguided.

“We don’t just lay charges just for the sake of laying charges. There has to be evidence. There needs to be a thoughtful consideration of what occurred,” he said.

“So this notion of the way we’re going to solve this problem is to charge more police officers with offences, I don’t know what offences, but with offences and somehow that’s going to have the desired effect, I think that’s a very poorly informed view to hold.”

The only two officers convicted in relation to a use-of-force death were Const. James Forcillo in Ontario and Sgt. Éric Deslauriers in Quebec, according to the CBC News database.

Forcillo was found guilty in a jury trial of attempted murder in the death of 18-year-old Sammy Yatim in Toronto in 2013. In 2017, a judge found Deslauriers guilty of manslaughter in the death of 17-year-old David-Hughes Lacour in Sainte-Adèle, Que.

Both are appealing their convictions, and their lawyers declined to comment so as not to jeopardize a case before the courts.

Rosenthal sees the Forcillo case as a conviction achieved under “extraordinary circumstances,” where there was clear video evidence against the officer. That’s not common, he said.
“Without the videotape, it’s hard to know what would have happened, what evidence the officers would have given to justify the shooting,” he said.

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