By Bishop Patrick Yu
I have a feeling that Toronto has crossed the Rubicon, or at least one of its tributaries.
A young man, armed with a three-inch knife, isolated in a street car and surrounded by some twenty police officers, was shot nine times in two distinct waves, and then, incredibly, Tasered by another officer. The whole thing was caught on camera and has gone viral on the Internet. You may even have seen it. It has generated disbelief, anger, the suspension of one officer and a promise by our police chief for a thorough investigation.
I call you to prayer. Pray for the family of Sammy Yatim and his friends. Pray that God will give them strength to survive and rise from this tragic loss. Pray also for the officers involved, even the one suspended. We do not yet know all the facts, the video was shot from one angle and the sound was muffled. Do not rush to judgment but hold everyone concerned in prayer.
I call you to pray for Toronto and its law enforcement. Watch the development of this story and don’t let it go. In following it, involve yourself and learn how policing is done, particularly the checks and balances around their considerable power. The incidents of disproportionate force against civilians have increased in Canada in both frequency and intensity. The way these cases were dispatched puzzled many fair-minded Canadians. Within days of the shooting of Sammy Yatim in Toronto, an RCMP officer, the first so charged, was acquitted of perjury over the death of Taser victim Robert Dziekanski in the Vancouver airport. That followed a sequence of events in which all officers involved in the killing were cleared of wrongdoing. In Toronto, the action of police during the G8 summit has not yet been fully accounted for.
In the classic political theory of the social contract, we give government certain powers in exchange for an ordered society. It is most obvious in policing. We rely on the police to protect us from crimes, especially violent ones. In exchange, we give them certain privileges: they alone carry arms and can legally use them when their lives or the lives of others are threatened. They put themselves on the “thin blue line” and are required to make decisions in a split second. It is not surprising that the courts are reluctant to convict police officers when, after the fact, it is determined that mistakes were made. On the other hand, the social contract only holds when the public continues to believe that the police view all the citizenry as the object that they “serve and protect”, and none of it as their enemies. It is for the courts to judge and the police to enforce the law. Before the law, everyone is accorded the same respect and protection, and that includes the unruly, the mouthy, the foreign looking, the homeless, demonstrators and even criminals. The young man may have committed a crime and he certainly disturbed the peace, but that is not a capital offence. The role of the police is to apprehend him, not to kill him.
The alternatives do not need to be imagined in a city filled with recent immigrants. Some of us are from countries where the police are a law unto themselves; they are the last people you turn to for help. In those countries, the sight of a policeman instills fear; subservient obedience is always called for and mouthing off to police is fatal. In that scenario, a citizen who dared to disseminate the video would face unpleasant consequences. We must do everything to resist any descent into that nightmare. Thankfully, we’re still far from it. Most police officers are professional and respectful. It is all the more reason for the public who appreciate and support the police to watch the investigation and not to lose interest. Use the considerable influence you have as citizens, even as churches, to ensure that the investigations are comprehensive, public, fair and transparent. It is to everyone’s interest, including our police force, to ensure that people are treated fairly in policing.
Christian political theology holds up a tension: God alone is the source of authority and power. Government is a legitimate expression of God’s authority and, as such, should be respected. Christians should obey the law and pay taxes. On the other hand, power always corrupts human beings. Human beings, even some of Toronto’s finest, are capable of abusing power. Christians must not give absolute, unquestioning allegiance to any authority; it is neither good for them or for us. Rather, obedience to God entails a vigorous exercise of the duty to supervise government. What worries me more than trigger-happy officers is a police culture of superiority, of “we against them,” a mistrust of the public which will only engender a corresponding breakdown of trust.
We also believe that in the background, a spiritual contest is at play which we can scarcely understand. This contest manifests itself in glimpses of injustice and oppression. That is why prayer is vital for the love of the world. As Jesus called his disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane, I call you to keep alert, keep awake, watch, and pray.
Bishop Patrick Yu, the area bishop of York-Scarborough, is the Bishop Commissary at the time of the incident.