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Thursday, November 01, 2007

The video, the police and a promise broken

November 1, 2007
GARY MASON, Globe and Mail

VANCOUVER -- The assistant commissioner of the RCMP in Metro Vancouver was on the radio yesterday, talking about tasers and gangs and how the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms makes it difficult for the Mounties to get search warrants to go after bad guys.

Peter German was saying that because of the protections Canadians receive under the Charter, it can take weeks and sometimes months for police to get the necessary judicial authority to carry out a search warrant or conduct electronic surveillance in a bid to gather evidence.

And well it should. If you didn't have those safeguards in place, before you know it police would be taking people's property from under their noses in the name of some investigation.

I mean, can you imagine?

Sadly, here in B.C., we can. For that is exactly what has prompted a lawsuit launched this week by a man who had personal property taken from him by the RCMP with no hope of getting it back for perhaps years.

The fact that the matter is connected to the taser-related death of Robert Dziekanski at Vancouver International Airport two weeks ago makes it even messier. You can't help but think the RCMP's actions are an indication of just how stung the force has been by the angry national reaction to Mr. Dziekanski's tragic, controversial death.

The crux of the lawsuit is as follows: Paul Pritchard happened to be at the airport the night the taser incident occurred. He had videotaped Mr. Dziekanski before police arrived, during his interaction with police and after the 40-year-old Polish immigrant was on the ground, either unconscious or dead.

At the scene, Mr. Pritchard volunteered to an RCMP officer that he had filmed the whole incident. Mr. Pritchard said that when the RCMP officer asked if it would be okay to make a copy of the footage, he said yes. The officer took the camera, returning it days later minus the footage of Mr. Dziekanski and his confrontation with police.

Mr. Pritchard wants that part of his film back, making no secret of his intentions to release it to the media. The RCMP says it won't give it back, claiming that the release and subsequent publication of it in any form might jeopardize its investigation. How? The evidence of potential witnesses could be sullied if they were to see footage of the incident ahead of giving a statement to police.

Which is completely ridiculous.

The RCMP's decision to confiscate Mr. Pritchard's property has nothing to do with damaging an investigation and everything to do with damage control. The Mounties have seen the video and know how devastating it would be if it were to be released publicly. Especially now, with the back story of Mr. Dziekanski's time at the airport common knowledge.

Unable to speak English, Mr. Dziekanski spent 10 hours wandering the secure international arrivals area, unable to connect with a distraught mother who had been waiting for him for hours beyond a stretch of nearby frosted windows. Distraught, Mr. Dziekanski eventually became violent. This prompted the call to police, who allegedly tasered him 24 seconds after arriving.

What I'm having a hard time understanding is how the release of this video would compromise the integrity of anyone's evidence. The footage is the footage. How is it going to affect the recall of anyone who may have witnessed the incident other than perhaps clarifying things in their mind? And honestly, what are these witnesses possibly going to add to the conversation anyway? Their memory of the incident and thus potential evidence couldn't be as strong as the evidence and recall contained in Mr. Pritchard's camera. He has the whole thing on video, from start to finish.

And not to sound paranoid here, but how do we know that this vital piece of evidence the RCMP now has, one that potentially could cast its officers in a bad light, won't be tampered with? Or mysteriously get wiped out?

Because we're told we can trust the RCMP? Because the Mounties are as good as their word?

Mr. Pritchard gave the RCMP permission to make a copy of footage he had in his camera. He handed over his camera voluntarily and in good faith. He did not have to. The officer who took it promised Mr. Pritchard he would get it back along with all its contents. For the Mounties to now turn around and say, "Sorry, we were just fooling about giving the footage back," is simply wrong.

Now a judge may force them to give it back.

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