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Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Mother weeps over son's death as Commons committee studies taser use

April 16, 2008
The Canadian Press

OTTAWA — Instead of celebrating her son's 41st birthday and his new life in Canada, the heartbroken mother of Robert Dziekanski spoke to MPs Wednesday about the dangers of Taser stun guns. Zofia Cisowski's beloved only son died last Oct. 14 at Vancouver International Airport after being jolted twice and pinned to the floor by RCMP officers. His ordeal, caught on video by another passenger, set off an international uproar over Taser safety.

Dziekanski's slight, soft-spoken mother dabbed tears as she appeared before MPs studying use of the powerful weapons. "Every day is more painful," she told reporters after a brief statement to the Commons public safety committee. "Yesterday was my son's birthday, April 15."

Cisowski broke down as she described returning Tuesday to the airport international arrivals section where her son, who arrived from Poland on Oct. 13, spent his last moments. "I was looking for this area where my son died. And I brought a bouquet of flowers, a beautiful card... ."

Cisowski says police should be better trained and supervised on when to use Tasers - especially on people in distress. She noted that, although agitated after spending hours caught in a series of communication miscues, her son was obviously relieved to see the Mounties show up.

He had studied the iconic police force before immigrating to Canada and would have assumed the officers were there to help, she said. Instead, her apparently co-operative son was Tasered within seconds and without any other attempt to calm him.

Cisowski wonders why RCMP officers didn't do more to help immediately after zapping him. "Don't they have a responsibility to check on the man?" she asked the MPs.

Her lawyer, Walter Kosteckyj, says she suffers post-traumatic stress and intense guilt over having left the airport after being wrongly told her son had not arrived. Kosteckyj said Dziekanski was a lost soul whose fate was decided by a series of mistakes amounting to "benign neglect" by airport and immigration staff.

Cisowski spent nine hours at the airport waiting in vain for her son who was to live with her in Kamloops. She had worked two jobs for seven years to prepare for his arrival and a long anticipated reunion.

Dziekanski spoke no English and became distressed after the long wait in a secure part of the airport as his mother tried fruitlessly to contact him from the other side. RCMP were called after he damaged a computer and threw a small table.

Kosteckyj wonders what would have happened without the amateur video of the Tasering, viewed by millions of Canadians. "If we didn't have the tape what would the police be telling us about this incident today?" Kosteckyj says the RCMP still haven't answered for why they didn't immediately tell Cisowski that her son was Tasered.

Patti Gillman's brother Robert Bagnell died soon after being Tasered by Vancouver police in a rooming house on June 23, 2004. She told MPs that officers initially said he died of "an apparent drug overdose." Toxicology reports later showed that he had less than half of what would be considered a lethal dose of drugs in his system, she told the committee.

(I actually said "We learned [at the inquest] that it was possible that Bob had LESS THAN HALF THE LETHAL AMOUNT of narcotics in his system – not nearly enough in and of themselves to kill him.")

"If using the Taser on my brother was the right thing to do, why would the police have not disclosed that immediately?" Gillman wonders what might be different today if her brother's death, and that of 18 other Canadians who've died soon after being Tasered, had been caught on video. "I believe that if Canadians could see with their own eyes what really happened, not the police's tidy version of events but what really happened ... they would be outraged."

Kosteckyj still can't understand how Dziekanski was left to wander the Vancouver airport for hours. "Why aren't some alarm bells going off?" he said. "There's no one there to help that lost traveller."

Kosteckyj also criticized the way police put use of force ahead of tactful negotiation during their encounter with Dziekanski, suggesting good law enforcement is a lost art. "It's knowing how to interact with people at the right time."

Police recently completed a homicide investigation into Dziekanski's death, but there is no word on whether charges will be laid.

Canada Border Services Agency officials say there were several attempts to help Dziekanski. They point out he was given several glasses of water. His luggage was retrieved for him and staff helped find his documents. Numerous attempts were made to contact his family. And once his family reached staff by phone, there was an effort to locate him.

In November, the Border Services Agency announced several steps including a review of services to international travellers and installation of more cameras in the agency's area of the Vancouver airport. More patrols and security checks, along with changes to ensure people report for secondary examination within a reasonable time, are also being considered.

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