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Sunday, August 17, 2008

RCMP emails reveal chaotic time after airport taser death

August 17, 2008
The Canadian Press

VANCOUVER — While RCMP brass and its media relations division scrambled to keep from being "crucified" over Taser use and the death of a man at Vancouver's airport, they also had to deal with an increasing barrage of complaints accusing officers of being everything from clowns to killers.

Email documents, released to The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act, showed great concern from Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day's office down to the RCMP's British Columbia media relations office over the public's perception about the death of Robert Dziekanski.

"I am going to get some advice, but I think I might wade in here to set some of the record straight with the media," RCMP Chief Supt. Dale McGowan wrote in an email to the Cmdr. Peter German.

"We are being crucified on why the Taser usage and our members' actions at the preliminary stages."

German later replied that he had "just watched the Taser video on BBC TV in Australia!"

Weeks before, RCMP media spokesman Sgt. Pierre Lemaitre wrote to management that Cpl. Dale Carr - the media spokesman for the Integrated Homicide Investigation Team - had concluded there was a possibility of an "international incident" because of Dziekanski's death.

In one email days after the death, Day's office issues an "urgent" request to RCMP to see the latest media lines Mounties have sent out on the Taser incident.

Lemaitre outlined suggestions for what the RCMP should tell the media, including that the death was being reviewed on several levels and that the investigation was continuing.

On October 14, 2007 Dziekanski spent hours in the international arrivals area at the Vancouver airport before he was confronted by four RMCP officers.

A bystander's video of the confrontation shows the officers attempting a brief conversation with the confused and sweating Polish man before Dziekanski was jolted twice with a Taser.

He died minutes after the officers pinned him to the ground.

Sgt. Tim Shields - who has just taken over the communications section at E Division in Vancouver - said in an interview last week that the entire issue has hurt the Mounties' public image.

"Yes, of course it has," he said. "And we hope that when more of the facts are made public ... it will present a clearer picture of truly what happened."

The eyewitness video was seized by officers at the scene for evidence, and the owner later threatened legal action to get it back, saying he wanted to release what he recorded to the media.

In the hours after the death, Lemaitre told the media that officers at the scene attempted to calm the man, but they felt threatened.

When the eyewitness video was finally released, it showed police using the Taser less than half-a-minute after first confronting the man.

After the tape was aired around the world, the RCMP were inundated with angry emails.

"Sgt. Pierre Lemaitre should be fired for purposely misrepresenting the facts and suppressing the video on a false premise," wrote one person who's name was removed from the documents. "It appears you have been caught in an outright lie," wrote another, whose name was also stripped from the email. The email had a subject line reading "state-sanctioned murder."

Lemaitre told one correspondent he had to work with the information that he was given by the investigation team, and he suggested that if he had it to do over again, he would have said nothing.

"In the world of communications, police have often been criticized for not giving details and/or information regarding an incident resulting in allegations that we are hiding something," Lemaitre wrote.

He told the complainant several investigations will reveal why officers did what they did. "As for myself, as a spokesperson, in the future, I will consider saying that we have no comment, there's an ongoing investigation, and weather the storm of media criticism that we are not forthcoming."

Despite Lemaitre's comment, Shields said police haven't changed the way they deal with the media. "We have to ensure that we have an open relationship with the media because we rely on the media to get the message out to the public," he said.

Another member of the public wrote asking police "So how are you going to lie your way out of this one?" and made reference to the Mahar Arar where RCMP handed over inaccurate information about the Canadian man to U.S. authorities. "You clowns are nothing but a sad, expensive joke," the writer ended.

Later correspondence grew increasing hostile and is riddled with foul language. Some are even threatening. "When will charges of manslaughter be brought against the officers?" asks a member of the public. "Seeing as there will be no proper action taken against the criminals, I should hope a similar fate befalls their families."

Carr and Lemaitre responded to several of the writers.

It is vitriol Shields said he's never seen before from the public.

"After the millions of good things that we have done, it was very disheartening to see that level of backlash and anger from the public."

Not all the emails were negative. Chris Newel of the Clearwater RCMP wrote to Lemaitre suggesting police put out a news release indicating how many times a Taser was used successfully. "I see on the news eight people have died in five years - that's about 1.5 a year. How many would have died if we didn't have the Taser?" Newel wondered. "Of those eight, how many had pre-existing conditions that likely contributed, if not were the cause, of death?" "Thanks for that," Lemaitre replied. "Stand by for the autopsy results! We might be in for a surprise, like Tasers didn't kill this guy, pre-existing medical conditions and or drugs in the system, wait and see."

No drugs or alcohol were found in Dziekanski's body, but the cause of death still hasn't been released.

A briefing document written in November 2007 for RCMP Commissioner William Elliott said it was the B.C.'s Coroner's Office that left police in an embarrassing position after RCMP refused to release the bystander's video before it was used at the coroner's inquest.

Elliott said the coroner, "in an unprecedented action and in contradiction to his request of the prior week," sent a letter to the Integrated Homicide Investigative Team saying the coroner's office instead had no problem with the videotape being released. "This left no legal basis for the videotape to be held," Elliott wrote.

The reverberations from Dziekanski's death and the release of the videotape are still being felt, with most of the investigations ongoing, including a public inquiry which will begin hearing witnesses testify in October about the night Dziekanski died.

The B.C. Crown is looking at a police report into whether charges should be laid against the officers involved.

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