The province’s police watchdog has cleared a Toronto police officer who punched a 15-year-old boy several times as he was being put into handcuffs in North York last July.
On Friday, the Special Investigations Unit (SIU) issued the findings of its investigation into the July 19 incident that happened in an apartment building near Jane Street and Finch Avenue West.
SIU Director Joseph Martino looked into whether the six punches the officer landed on the boy during the arrest were legally justified. He found the officer was within his rights when he punched the boy the first three times.
As for the three additional punches, Martino said: “Strictly speaking, I do not think it was objectively necessary to strike those additional blows.”
However, he noted that while he accepts that one or more of the punches were the cause for the serious injuries the boy suffered, “I am unable to conclude with any confidence that the officer comported himself other than within the limits of the criminal law throughout their engagement. As such, there is no basis for proceeding with charges in this case.”
Using evidence investigators collected, including police body-worn camera footage, building surveillance video, communication recordings and interviews with the boy and several police and non-police eyewitnesses, Martino detailed what occurred that summer evening in the hallway of the apartment.
Toronto police were called to the apartment before 9 p.m. after receiving a report from a resident that a male had been banging on her door for the past 10 minutes, attempting to break in.
The SIU said the male was the 15-year-old boy, who is referred to as the Complainant in the report.
The boy was in the building stairwell earlier that evening with his friends when a tenant approached them to complain about their behaviour.
“They had been drinking and causing a disturbance. The Complainant did not take kindly to the rebuke,” the SIU said. The boy went to his apartment and retrieved a knife. He and his two friends then attended a unit where he believed the tenant lived. However, the SIU said the three went to the wrong door.
The boy then started banging and kicking at the door, subsequently slashing and stabbing it with a knife. The SIU said his friends tried to stop him, but they were unsuccessful.
A short time later, four police officers arrived at the building. One of them, who is referred to as the subject official (SO), initially had his pistol at the ready before switching to a Taser, the SIU said. Two officers had less-lethal shotguns, while the other had a rifle out.
The officers found the boy in the corridor. With their weapons pointed at him, the officers walked in the boy’s direction, ordering him to drop the knife. The boy initially refused to let go of the knife, and told officers that they should back up and put their weapons down.
The SIU said the back and forth continued for several seconds until the boy dropped the knife by his feet and stepped back when directed. However, he refused to comply when officers asked him to move to the wall across the hall.
Shortly after, one of the officers, referred to as witness official # 2 (WO#2), moved in, grabbed the boy, and placed him on the wall. Another officer, the SO, then took hold and assisted in grounding him.
The boy fell on his right side and “was quickly met by a series of three right-handed punches to the left side of the head by the SO,” the SIU said, adding that WO#2, at the same time, punched the boy in the torso.
“Two to three seconds after his first volley of blows, the SO delivered another series of three punches to the Complainant’s head,” the SIU said. “Shortly thereafter, the officers brought the Complainant’s arms behind the back and secured them in handcuffs.”
The boy was taken to the hospital and was diagnosed with fractures of the jaw, the SIU said.
WAS THE USE OF FORCE JUSTIFIED?
In his analysis, SIU Director Martino indicated that the force used by the SO during the arrest is subject to legitimate scrutiny.
He concluded that the first three punches landed by the officer fell within the range of what was reasonable in the circumstances. The boy was initially defiant when confronted by police and did not follow their orders.
“His belligerence continued as he was initially grabbed by WO #2 and then brought to the floor; he screamed and refused to relax his left arm so that it could be moved behind his back,” Martino wrote.
“On this record, I am satisfied that the SO was probably within his rights when he punched the Complainant the first three times. The officer would have had cause to be concerned that the Complainant might still be armed, raising the need to ensure that he be immediately deterred by physical force and taken into custody.”
However, the question of whether punches four through six was justified, Martino said it is not as easily discerned, given that there were other officers around the boy at the time.
While he did not think it was objectively necessary to deliver the latter punches, “the justification set out in section 25(1) (of the Criminal Code) is not automatically negated where an officer is wrong in the necessity of their force. An officer may have an honest mistake about the facts, leading them to believe there is a need to use force of one type or another, as long as the mistake is one which a reasonable person might have made in the circumstances,” the director said.
The SO did not agree to be interviewed as his legal right but provided notes to the SIU. Martino said the officer, relaying what was in his notes, decided to punch the boy three more times “to soften [his] pinned hands” so that he could be handcuffed.
“In fact, the Complainant’s left arm was folded by his chest at the time, only brought behind his back after the SO’s punches. Given the tension of the moment, and the speed with which events unfolded, this piece of evidence leads me to conclude that the SO’s mistake was reasonable in the circumstances, and that his resultant force thereby fell within the limits of the justification set out in section 25(1),” Martino said.
As for the punches thrown by WO#2, the director said he is satisfied that they’re legally justified.
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