October 17, 2007
Ian Mulgrew, Vancouver Sun
Taser-related death in RCMP takedown leaves opening for a whitewash
RICHMOND - The RCMP's handling of the Taser-related death of a Polish immigrant Sunday seems as mindless as the offensive attempts to whitewash the shooting of Houston mill worker Ian Bush. Mountie spokesman Sgt. Pierre Lemaitre and the rest of the force just don't get it -- they are not a law unto themselves. That the Horsemen are investigating themselves in this situation raises the same concerns that turned the October 2005 death of Bush into a scandal.
From the moment Robert Dziekanski of Pieszyce, Poland, died in the customs area of Vancouver International Airport, Sgt. Lemaitre has been running damage control. Just as he did in the Bush case. Bush died inside the Houston RCMP detachment after he was shot in the head during a scuffle with a Mountie who had arrested him for having an open bottle of beer outside a hockey game. Lemaitre would have us believe that Tasering the distraught Dziekanski was the only way of dealing with the situation.
That's disingenuous. What's worse is that while quickly jumping to the defence of their members, the Mounties treated the Dziekanski family like dirt. How would you like to be told police had found your missing son, but when you arrived to see him, they told you he was dead? That's what the RCMP did to Dziekanski's mother. They were just as insensitive with Bush's mom. Can these guys even spell c-o-m-p-a-s-s-i-o-n?
Meanwhile, the force rushes therapists and lawyers to officers caught up in such incidents because of the trauma. According to Lemaitre, Dziekanski came to the attention of airport security because he was agitated, pounding on windows and throwing around furniture. The three officers Lemaitre said responded couldn't use pepper spray or their batons because there were too many people around.
Sima Ashrafina, a medical lab assistant from North Vancouver, saw it go down differently. First of all, she says there were few people around -- it was 1:30 in the morning. Secondly, she says five officers were present, two of whom Tasered the unarmed man. In her view the response by the RCMP was "too harsh." While Lemaitre says the officers only fired two bursts of the Taser, she says she heard four blasts. Since she's not facing lawsuits or potential charges for causing a death, I can't imagine why she would lie. She was there -- I believe her, a disinterested observer.
The force's need to stand behind its officers appears clearly at odds with its duty to the public in these incidents and breeds suspicion. I think it's obvious independent investigations of deaths involving police would dispel such concerns and prevent clouds of distrust gathering over the RCMP. Regardless, we need to have an inquiry into the use of Tasers.
Dziekanski was the sixth person in B.C. to die in the past five years after being zapped by the Taser's 50,000 volts -- one of 16 people across the country who have died after such a shock. Amnesty International says there have been nearly 200 deaths across the continent during the same period following Taser use.
Of course, the company that makes Tasers claims the deaths were caused not by its device but by drugs, a pre-existing medical condition or "excited delirium." I love that term -- which is not a recognized medical or psychiatric condition. It has been used over the last decade to explain deaths in police custody, but is so vague it appears to mean little more than your heart is racing. It's a bogus label that indicates little more than the person was distressed and ramped up -- could be from fear, a physical or mental health problem, intoxicants or, God forbid, an attack of acute claustrophobia from being stuck for hours in customs.
That's why there are urgent calls for higher standards to be imposed on the use of the Taser and demands for more training for those who use the controversial weapon. The bottom line is at the moment police don't know what the outcome will be when they fire a Taser. What we do know is they are taking a chance with the target's life.
Consider the Taser's history. The Taser was invented in 1974 by NASA scientist Jack Cover who named it after Tom Swift, a fictional inventor in a series of sci-fi adventure novels. Taser is an acronym for the "Thomas A. Swift Electric Rifle." Cute, huh? Originally it was considered a firearm because it relied on gunpowder to fire the electric prods. In the early 1990s, that changed. The Taser was redesigned to use a nitrogen propellant so it would no longer be classified as a firearm. Since then, the company has built a lucrative monopoly through the use of former cops and army officers to tout the weapons.
The L.A. County Sheriff's Department was among the first to sign up for the new product and thousands of police and corrections departments have followed suit. Taser International's success story unfortunately overlooks the mounting body count. The company says its product had nothing to do with those fatalities -- the deaths can not be attributed to the Taser. But I don't think that's the issue: People are dying after Taser use and we need to recognize and respond to that. Whether it is from being zapped or a combination of factors doesn't matter in my opinion -- too many people have died. If Tasers are going to be used by police, they need to be placed high up on what the cops call the "continuum of force" model. They should not be a first response.
For Lemaitre to insist responding RCMP in this instance could not use pepper spray, their batons or hand-to-hand combat training is ridiculous. Any bouncer in a downtown nightclub deals with similarly unarmed unruly patrons on a weekly basis. Why could a handful of police officers not take down one unarmed man without resorting to this weapon? This is responsible policing? Before they drew their Tasers, the Mounties should have tried other options. We deserve to know why they didn't.
WELCOME to TRUTH ... not TASERS
Wednesday, October 17, 2007
October 17, 2007