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Thursday, November 15, 2007

Police statements differ from what video shows of Taser death

November 15, 2007
Canadian Press

VANCOUVER - There are too many differences between what police told the public and what a video shows of the fatal night RCMP used a Taser to subdue a frantic Polish immigrant at Vancouver's airport, critics say. Amnesty International Canada is calling for an independent investigation and an expert in police force says the Oct. 14 incident and the video released this week raise serious concerns that need to be addressed. "For me, it (the video) raises a lot of questions as to how decisions were made going into that incident because what you appear to see is that they show up and move to Taser somebody," Hilary Homes of Amnesty International said from Ottawa.

Robert Dziekanski died minutes after being zapped twice by a Taser-wielding officer in the airport's international arrivals area. Police were called because Dziekanski had been acting strangely after spending hours waiting vainly to meet his mother. The video shows Dziekanski, who spoke only Polish, trying to barricade himself into the secure area of the arrivals terminal while bystanders try to communicate with him.

Immediately after the incident, Sgt. Pierre Lemaitre, spokesman for the RCMP's E Division, said three Mounties tried to hold Dziekanski down after approaching him in a secure area of the airport. In fact, the video shows four officers confronting the agitated Dziekanski and backing him up to a counter inside the terminal's secure area. The Taser was deployed within a minute of police confronting him.

It's unclear whether Lemaitre meant officers tried to subdue him before he was shot with the Taser or afterwards. The video shows the four Mounties piling on to a fallen Dziekanski after he was zapped.

Lemaitre wasn't available for comment Thursday.

The video shows the officers crowding around the fallen man as he writhed and moaned. At least one of them appeared to put his full weight on the man's neck. Dziekanski eventually stopped moving and the video ends soon after a man in a suit bends over to see if he had a pulse.

Traveller Paul Pritchard, who shot the video, said officers seemed to come prepared to zap Dziekanski. "As they ran in, I heard one of the officers say, 'Can I Taser him, should I Taser?' before they actually even got to Mr. Dziekanski," said Pritchard, who lives in Victoria.

Homes said 17 Canadians have been killed by the force of a Taser, which jolts the body with 50,000 volts and is often used to subdue people deemed dangerous to police, themselves or others. But she said the video clearly shows Dziekanski wasn't a threat to anybody and the footage does not indicate Mounties tried to restrain him before he was shot, if that's what Lemaitre meant.

A report published by Amnesty International in May says all police departments should stop using Tasers until thorough studies have been done on its effects.

RCMP Cpl. Dale Carr said he doesn't understand why people would think Dziekanski was shot with the Taser prematurely. "How much time does one need to make an assessment that there is potential of danger or potential of somebody being harmed?" Carr wouldn't comment on whether the four Mounties could have used other tactics to deal with Dziekanski, who does not appear to threaten them and at one point backs away. "The whole basis of our investigation is to get to the bottom of how Mr. Dziekanski ended up in the state that he did: deceased," said Carr, who speaks for the RCMP homicide unit investigating the death. "We want to answer those questions but they're not going to be answered through the media." He said a coroner's inquest, which has yet to be scheduled, would answer a crucial question about why the officers involved didn't use other means of trying to subdue Dziekanski. "That's a good question," he said. "That's a question for those officers while they're under oath at the inquest."

Carr said he's been getting angry calls about the incident from "people who feel that they have the right to call me and blast me." "I suspect they're making conclusions, based on one piece of evidence and they're not waiting, perhaps, for all of the evidence to come out down the road and that's unfortunate." He said the video is a strong piece of evidence but it's only one side of the story. Carr wouldn't say if police have a video recording of their own of the incident that has generated buzz on radio talk shows and led to a website called Justice for Robert Dziekanski.

Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day said the RCMP is reviewing the practices related to Taser use and that a report is being prepared. Day is waiting to see the conclusions of that report before commenting.

Michael Lyman, a professor in the criminal justice and forensic science department at Columbia College in Missouri, said the video shows Dziekanski to be in crisis but that he certainly didn't pose a threat to the four police officers. "I don't see where the officers made any attempts to rush him or to control him physically through the use of soft-handed control techniques as in simply just holding him and securing him without having to resort to any weaponry," he said. Lyman, who has testified in hundreds of cases in the United States involving proper use of police force, said he's particularly concerned about a Mountie putting his full weight on Dziekanski after he's been flailing on the floor. "That is very, very dangerous because persons have difficulty breathing when an officer places weight on them, especially on a hard floor." Lyman said many questions need answers in what has become a huge international story. "We have to just take a breath and consider what the police might have known about this person, if anything, prior to their arrival. "How did they receive their message? Was there anybody else that might have come to them and said, 'This person's going to hurt somebody?' "I'd like to approach a situation like this from the standpoint of listening to what the police have to say but holding them accountable for their actions that are clearly depicted by what we see on the video."

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