Two Similar Scenarios, Two Wildly Different Outcomes...


Evaluate the following two scenarios:

1. A suspect brandishes a knife while having an argument in a doughnut shop parking lot. Police respond and the suspect refuses to drop the weapon, instead pointing the knife at the responding officers in a threatening manner.

2. A suspect brandishes a knife on a downtown streetcar, ordering everyone including the driver to exit the vehicle. Alone on the abandoned streetcar, the suspect refuses to surrender while shouting insults at the responding police officers.

Both scenarios occur within forty-eight hours of each other and we ask, how should the police bring each to an end. In one instance, the suspect is taken into custody after surrendering. In the other, the suspect is shot at nine times at close range, then tasered once felled. And there's video of the incident here:

The planets so rarely align themselves in such an order as to provide us a controversial incident, fraught with hypotheticals, while at the same time lending us something approximating a "control scenario" against which to compare. As of Monday, a 32 year old woman named Melissa Sue Bolahood, the suspect in our first scenario, sits in Peterborough-Lakefield Police custody. Meanwhile in downtown Toronto, a vigil is being held at the scene of 18 year old Sammy Yatim's fatal interaction with police.

The usual Monday morning quarter-backing is underway as much of Toronto's social-media reacts with disbelief while armchair judges wash their hands and quip, "that's what happens when you bring a knife to a gunfight."

The question most of us are asking is about excess and we're not posing it in a vacuum. We've seen the story of the knife-wielding man, woman, psychotic episode, and or hostage situation before. I can personally recall two from my childhood that occurred in our suburban neighbourhood, identical to the incidents over the weekend. In both, a distraught man with a knife barricaded himself in his home and in both, the police negotiated a surrender without a shot fired.

Maybe these aren't the same thing as a man on public transit, but then there was the horrific incident on a Greyhound Bus in 2008 in which 40 year old Vince Weiguang Li stabbed and decapitated 22 year old fellow passenger Tim McLean in a psychotic episode. In the ensuing standoff, police waited hours before tasering then arresting Weiguang Li as he tried to exit the bus through a window.

Every situation is different and Toronto's Police Chief Bill Blair has said that there will of course be a full investigation to glean "if anything could have been done to prevent the tragic death" of Sammy Yatim but we know what excessive force looks like in Canadian law enforcement. It's a disturbing pattern emerging in recent years with other incidents captured on video like the 2007 point-blank execution of Paul Boyd in Vancouver. Thank God for cellphone video, the most powerful force in public opinion and a valuable tool in policing the police.

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