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Saturday, December 22, 2007

Canadians see Dziekanski at airport not Dudley Do-Right as RCMP image, say experts

December 21, 2007
The Canadian Press

VICTORIA - It used to be the image of Dudley Do-Right, the squeaky-clean Mountie, that was etched into the minds of Canadians when they considered the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

But what's more likely to come to mind now are the chilling last screams of Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski as he lay dying on the floor of Vancouver's airport.

He had been Tasered twice by four RCMP officers who confronted him in the international arrivals area.

Canadians see Grey Cup parades, musical rides and colourful uniforms when they think of the RCMP, but those images are blurred as the names of Ian Bush, Maher Arar and Dziekanski creep like nightmares into the national consciousness.

Even RCMP brass admit to image issues and the need for a top-to-bottom overhaul.

A government-ordered report by Toronto lawyer Peter Brown recently concluded that the 133-year-old force requires massive structural changes that include blowing up its fortress mentality by moving towards greater civilian oversight, independent criticism and giving the force the authority to manage its own staff and budget.

But that may not be enough to save the RCMP as Canadians are troubled by doubts about a once-treasured icon, say police experts and critics who believe the Mounties have become outsiders in their own towns and strangers in their country.

"A reconstituted RCMP would probably be a good way of going," said Prof. Robert Gordon, director of the School of Criminology at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C.

A name change may also in order, he said.

"Whether you continue to call it the RCMP or not, that remains to be seen," he said. "I think that (the name) is a source of puzzlement to some because they don't seem to be riding horses anymore."

The hierarchical, almost paramilitary structure of the RCMP is at odds with modern policing in urban environments and the Mounties need to get with the times, Gordon said.

"They still are focused more on the need to have polished boots than they are to have polished brains," he said.

"They are an anachronism. But they are a very powerful Canadian icon and disengaging them from things that they should no longer be doing is going to be tough."

Simon Fraser University is planning a major policing forum in the new year that will examine calls for a metro police force in the Vancouver area to take over the duties of the RCMP in many suburban communities, Gordon said.

The forum comes as B.C.'s Solicitor General John Les plans to meet with local politicians to discuss joint policing initiatives as gang warfare grips Vancouver with shootings and beatings.

Les was essentially dragged kicking and screaming into a meeting on the subject with Vancouver-area politicians.

He had consistently rejected the need for joint policing, and at one point, berated a police chief who suggested joint policing was needed to fight gang murders in the Vancouver area.

Gordon and others say they are looking to governments to lead the charge to bring about change for the Mounties in the next year.

Gordon said he would like to see the RCMP become a truly federal police force - like the FBI in the United States - which means getting out of the provinces and starting to look after federal issues like national security, organized crime and protection of the treasury.

"It's obvious that the image has taken a bit of a beating over the last year," he said. "I would imagine that it's a little tarnished at the moment and I would suspect that this is high priority for the new commissioner."

William Elliott, appointed this summer, is the first civilian to be appointed RCMP commissioner.

Gordon wonders if he was given a mandate for change and will deliver those changes in the coming months.

The RCMP said Elliott was not available to be interviewed and Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day could not be reached for comment.

Halifax-area author Paul Palango is convinced the Dziekanski Taser incident last October and others has primed the federal government to make changes.

The bad press dogging the RCMP this year included the death of Bush, who was shot in the back of the head by an RCMP officer in Houston, B.C. The police complaints commissioner cleared the officer, though recommended some changes to police protocol.

Palango, who has written books critical of the RCMP, said he believes Prime Minister Stephen Harper leans toward dropping the RCMP from provincial policing in favour of a federal police force.

He pointed to a 2001 letter to former Alberta premier Ralph Klein that called for an Alberta provincial police.

The so-called Alberta firewall letter called on the province to let its contract with the RCMP run out in 2012, and then replace the Mounties with an Alberta police force.

Harper was president of the National Citizens' Coalition when he signed the letter.

"I still think that Harper has an agenda, and I think his agenda basically is to squeeze the RCMP out of provincial policing," Palango said.

"All that has happened has worked to his beliefs. All that has happened has basically supported him. He hasn't had to say a thing. People have been able to come to that conclusion on their own without Harper initiating anything."

Harper now is in the position where he can say his government is moving toward change within the RCMP because the public mood demands it, he said.

"It looks like he's responsive to what people want," said Palango.

Dziekanski's death at Vancouver airport in October and the public's ability to view much of the incident through a video filmed by a witness appears to have embedded in Canadians the need for change within the RCMP, say Palango and Gordon.

The video shows four RCMP officers approaching Dziekanski, who had been at Vancouver airport for about 10 hours and almost immediately zapping him twice with jolts from their Tasers.

He is heard screaming in fear and pain and dies shortly afterwards.

Dziekanski's death has resulted in at least eight Canadian investigations. Poland is also investigating and there has been a national debate about policing and the use of Tasers as a police weapon of force.

"It's the catalyst because it's allowed people to focus on the problems," Palango said.

The RCMP recently announced it ordered officers to limit Taser use to people displaying combative behaviours.

Last month, high-ranking RCMP officers in B.C. attended a news conference in Victoria to discuss the arrest of a Vancouver-area man who police Tasered, pepper-sprayed and hit with their batons.

Pacific region deputy commissioner Gary Bass, the top Mountie in British Columbia, said the RCMP wanted to comment publicly about the incident "in light of recent events with respect to the use of conducted energy weapons, commonly referred to as Tasers."

Bass said the RCMP wants to provide information as quickly as it can about incidents even though an investigation may not be complete. He said he wanted to dispel public concerns the RCMP does not provide information in a "timely fashion."

Assistant RCMP commander Peter German went even further, offering condolences to the victim's family and the officers involved in the tough arrest.

"The nature of police work is unpredictable," he said.

"This incident proves just that. No one ever wishes to see an outcome where someone is injured. Our thoughts are with his family, as well as the responding officers during this difficult time."

Robert Knipstrom, 36, died several days later.

Palango and Gordon say the RCMP would likely win back the public's respect if they more often responded quickly and in a forthright manner to incidents, no matter how difficult.

They point to an incident in an aboriginal village on B.C.'s coast near Vancouver last summer that signals the divide between the RCMP and the people they serve.

RCMP officers broke up a community parade to celebrate a village victory at an aboriginal soccer tournament, and six months later people are still angry and still waiting for answers, said band councillor Garry Feschuk.

"I've never seen our community so outraged when this happened," said the former elected chief.

The coach was handcuffed, people became angry, and in the melee, a baby was pepper-sprayed, said Feschuk.

"These are all kids with their parents," he said.

"I really have a hard time coming to grips with why this happened, especially when they endangered our children by pepper spraying. They never even took into account the safety of our children. Even that baby getting pepper sprayed."

Victory parades, including putting the winners into the back of pickup trucks, is a community tradition, Feschuk said. But the two RCMP officers on duty that day were not the village's regular officers and the celebration turned ugly, he said.

"There was even times when the RCMP even led the parade," Feschuk said. "They were at the front of the parade with their lights on."

Key dates in 2007 for the RCMP:

June 15: A special investigator's report into the RCMP pension scandal slams former commissioner Giuliano Zaccardelli and concludes the force's corporate culture and management structure need drastic reform.

July 5: Bureaucrat William Elliott is appointed the new RCMP commissioner, the first outsider to lead the Mounties since the force was created in 1873.

July 6: A coroner's inquest into the death of Ian Bush, shot at an RCMP detachment in B.C. in 2005, recommends mandatory electronic monitoring in detachments and calls for Mounties not to be left alone with suspects.

Sept. 9: More than 600 Mounties from across Western Canada gathered at Canada's national RCMP training centre in Regina to remember 218 officers who died in the line of duty since the creation of the North-West Mounted Police.

Oct. 6: RCMP officer Const. Christopher John Worden, 30, is shot and killed in Hay River, N.W.T.

Oct. 14: Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski dies after being stunned with a Taser by RCMP at Vancouver airport.

Nov. 5: RCMP officer Doug Scott, 20, is shot and killed in the Baffin Island hamlet of Kimmirut after responding to an impaired driving complaint.

Nov. 6: A truck driver is found guilty of dangerous driving causing death in Wetaskiwin, Alta., for smashing into the cruiser of an RCMP officer parked on the side of a busy Alberta highway. Const. Jose Agostinho was investigating another traffic accident when he was hit on July 4, 2005.

Nov. 19: B.C. government orders public inquiry into Dziekanski's death at Vancouver airport.

Nov. 29: The independent RCMP public complaints commissioner clears a Mountie in the death of Ian Bush, but Paul Kennedy launches his own probe into how Mounties across the country handle such cases because he said he's concerned about the "corrosive" rising public perception about police investigating themselves.

Dec. 19: The RCMP approves a new backup policy requiring that at least two officers respond to dangerous calls in remote areas.

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