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Groups call for action on police shootings at Toronto rally

TORONTO – Hundreds waving banners were outside Toronto police headquarters Tuesday demanding justice for 18-year-old Sammy Yatim who died after being shot by officers.

Yatim’s mother and sister — along with the families of other police shooting victims in Ontario — attended the protest. Inside the College Street headquarters was a monthly public meeting of Toronto’s police services board.

“Justice for Sammy, justice for all,” chanted protesters, who were blocked from the police headquarters’ entrance by officers on bikes.

“I felt really moved by what happened to Sammy and I want to help make a change,” one demonstrator told 680News.

Yatim — who witnesses said was armed with a knife — was shot in a confrontation with Toronto police aboard a TTC streetcar July 27. The incident was captured on surveillance and cellphone videos. His death has sparked public outrage over police use of force.

Nine shots can be heard on bystander video, first three shots in succession then six more after a pause. Yatim suffered multiple gunshot wounds, the Special Investigations Unit said. A Taser was later used, according to the agency, which is investigating the incident.

On Tuesday, some protesters carried signs with messages like “an empty streetcar? Whom did you protect” and “abolish the SIU.”

Yatim’s death was repeatedly referred to as “preventable” at a news conference earlier on Tuesday, as families of other police shooting victims called for a meeting with Ontario’s ombudsman to discuss a “better solution” to how police deal with people in crisis.

Jackie Christopher’s son O’Brian was the subject of a coroner’s inquest, which she says accomplished nothing.

“Until the system starts to hold the officers who do these things responsible, it’s going to keep happening again and again,” she said.

Ruth Schaeffer says Yatim’s death brings back the horrible memories of losing her son Levi.

“I don’t think that such a violent killing of somebody who one loves can ever be got over.”

Donna Murray’s daughter died in New Brunswick.

“I’m here for Sammy and I’m here to let everybody know that it can happen to anybody. It’s sad. It’s really sad.”

They are strangers but Karyn Greenwood-Graham now has a connection to Yatim’s family — her son Trevor was killed by police.

“It’s been a retraumatization of our own experiences and we are really, really reeling from this killing.”

The protest came just a day after Police Chief Bill Blair announced the appointment of retired justice Dennis O’Connor to assist the force in its review of all police practices, including use of force.

Blair said he’s asked O’Connor to make recommendations and examine best practices from around the world, citing public concern about police use of force and response to emotionally disturbed people.

The head of Toronto’s police services board, Alok Mukherjee, said they have asked Blair to ensure the review is “thorough and comprehensive.”

“The board is committed to making the report public in the interest of transparency and accountability,” he said.

Mukherjee said he couldn’t comment on the specifics of the investigations, but said the board “shares the community’s determination that Sammy Yatim’s death should not be in vain.”

The Ontario Federation of Labour, one of the groups that organized the news conference, said it was demanding an independent investigation into police training, policies and practices across the province “from the highest levels of decision-making right down to the front line response.”

Irwin Nanda, executive vice-president of the OFL, said the SIU — the province’s watchdog — must also be investigated.

Nanda said Yatim’s death was a result of a “total breakdown of the policing system.”

“Literally decades of reports, inquests and recommendations are gathering dust on police station shelves as the bodies of victims are piling up,” he said.

Just how frontline officers handle dangerous situations and what force they use is expected to remain in the spotlight over the coming months.

A coroner’s inquest into the deaths of three people — who may have had mental health issues, and were shot and killed after approaching Toronto police officers with weapons — is scheduled to begin in October.

Ontario’s ombudsman is also looking into what kind of direction the provincial government provides to police for defusing conflict situations.

Andre Marin said many coroner’s inquests into similar deaths over the past 20 years have made recommendations that are almost “carbon copied from each other,” but — as many families of victims have said — he wondered what has happened to all the recommendations.

— With files from The Canadian Press

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