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Latest shooting feeds public’s distrust of police

The shooting by police of 18-year-old Sammy Yatim clearly shocked the public. The negative reaction was quick and near-universal. But those who should be most appalled are fellow police officers, as the incident is but the latest in a long string that undermines the public’s trust.

Toronto Police, in particular, have a troubled history when it comes to shootings, with tensions among minority groups reaching the boiling point a couple of decades ago and never really simmering down. What many outside of those communities downplayed or ignored became a widespread public relations disaster during the G20 summit fiasco in June of 2010. It was then that the general public, in Toronto and everywhere else, got a taste of what lack of accountability and police-state rules could mean for anyone and everyone, not just “those” people known to police, for instance.

In the days leading up to and over the course of the G20 summit weekend, some 1,105 people were arrested – the largest mass arrest in Canadian history. From the invocation of legislation from the Second World War through to the lies told to the public and the failure to restrain police, the billion-dollar Stephen Harper boondoggle sent chills down our collective spines.

Bill Blair, chief of the Toronto Police, should have been forced to resign then, but he remained belligerent and unashamed of what happened during the summit, the same attitude he, senior officers and union ranks displayed through other shooting incidents.

We saw a much humbler Blair following last week’s shooting of Yatim on a TTC streetcar. The many videos that quickly circulated put the police on very shaky footing if the goal was the usual defensive posturing. Anyone who’s seen the clips knows something was amiss: nine shots and a tasering seem like overkill for a teen with a small knife alone on a streetcar. Blair was apologetic and made none of the usual excuses, appearing genuinely off balance by what had happened.

Moreover, he promised to cooperate fully with the mandatory Special Investigations Unit review of the shooting. That would seem self-evident, but this is the same chief who’s received more than 80 letters from the SIU complaining of a lack of cooperation in past investigations.

While the situation in Toronto is always more involved and volatile than policing in Waterloo Region, for instance, that’s not to say the concerns stop at the municipal boundary line. Stories of police misconduct, malfeasance and corruption anywhere – the RCMP, OPP or any municipal department – tars the entire system, and feeds the growing distrust.

The public’s perception of police has become more negative, with the aftermath of the G20 fiasco leading a spike in a five-year decline. A poll later that year found 28 per cent of people in Toronto had less confidence in their police department. Across the country, 23 per cent of Canadians felt their confidence in police decreased from a year earlier.

Only 22 per cent of Canadians strongly agreed that their local police had respect for citizens’ rights, with 42 per cent somewhat agreeing.

A poll taken today, in the wake of the Yatim shooting, would undoubtedly show a drop in those numbers. While the investigation is only in the initial stages and all the facts aren’t known, the incident clearly does not pass the smell test. Much will have to change in order to reverse the long-term decline in trust.

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