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Saturday, December 13, 2008

Dziekanski tasered five times

December 13, 2008
Neal Hall, Vancouver Sun

New details emerged Friday as the Crown announced no charges will be laid against the four RCMP officers involved in the death of a Polish man who was Tasered on Oct. 14 last year at Vancouver International Airport.

Stan Lowe, speaking on behalf of the Criminal Justice Branch, which oversees charges and prosecutions in B.C., revealed for the first time that Robert Dziekanski had received five shocks from a Taser over 31 seconds, not two as initially announced by the RCMP.

RCMP Supt. Wayne Rideout, the team leader of an investigation conducted by members of the Integrated Homicide Investigation Team, said Friday an RCMP spokesman had initially issued incorrect information that the Taser had been deployed only twice.

The mistake was made in the rush to provide the media information immediately after the incident, he said.

"The RCMP spokesman conveyed the information he had been provided from one of the officers present at the airport. That officer did not himself deploy the conducted energy weapon," Rideout told reporters at a news conference.

Once it was realized incorrect information was released, police could not correct it because a criminal investigation was under way and police did not want influence the investigation, he said.

And while police initially called to the scene thought Dziekanski was intoxicated, the Crown revealed Friday that no drugs or alcohol were found in his system, and that he had an unopened bottle of Polish vodka with him.

Dziekanski's mother, Zofia Cisowski, was upset when told by officials on Thursday that no charges would be laid against the four officers, her lawyer, Walter Kosteckyj, said Friday.

"Her initial reaction was, 'How can you tell me a Taser was deployed five times on my son and it isn't excessive?'" the lawyer recalled.

She also questioned why officers "jumping" on her son to restrain and handcuff him wasn't considered excessive force, he said.

"They [the RCMP] said they don't have any legal responsibility," Kosteckyj said, but added that his client plans to file a civil lawsuit against police.

"They just mishandled the entire situation," said the lawyer and former Mountie.

He pointed out that Dziekanski, seconds before he was first jolted with the Taser, told police in Polish: "Have you lost your mind? What are you doing?"

"They may have followed procedure," Kosteckyj said of the police actions. "If the procedure was flawed, that's not an issue for the criminal justice system, but it is an issue for the Braidwood commission."

The Braidwood commission of inquiry into the incident and the use of Tasers by police resumes Jan. 19 in Vancouver, presided over by retired judge Thomas Braidwood.

The Crown also revealed Friday that the Taser shocks did not cause the cardiac arrest that led to Dziekanski's death, but that the actions of police in restraining and handcuffing the man were found to be a contributing factor.

Lowe told the news conference that the available evidence from the police investigation "falls short" of the branch's charge-approval standard, which is a substantial likelihood of conviction.

He said the decision was reviewed by three levels of prosecution administration, including Robert Gillen, the assistant deputy attorney-general of B.C.

The charges considered were assault, assault with a weapon and manslaughter, Lowe said.

"We were all horrified by what happened," Attorney-General Wally Oppal said Friday.

But Oppal pointed out that the law entitles police to use reasonable force, and the conclusion reached by prosecutors was that the force used was justified under the circumstances.

"The public should realize the process is not over yet," the attorney-general said, adding that the Braidwood commission will hold the officers and the RCMP accountable for their actions.

Dziekanski, 40, had arrived in Vancouver from Poland after 21 hours of travelling. He exhibited bizarre, aggressive behavior at the airport, including throwing furniture and a computer, before he was encountered by police, who responded after several people called 911.

Witnesses told police the man was "freaking out, drunk and did not speak English," Lowe explained during a news conference Friday.

"The officers attempted to talk to Mr. Dziekanski and communicate with him with hand signals for several seconds," he added. "He momentarily calmed down and dropped his arms to his side."

Then Dziekanski became annoyed and frustrated, threw up his arms, moved to his right, grabbed a stapler and held it out in his hand, Lowe said. The officers then backed away from Dziekanski and deployed Taser for the first time.

Cause of death was listed as "sudden death following restraint," Lowe said.

The officers involved were identified only by their rank and last names: Constables Millington, Bentley and Rundel, and Cpl. Robinson.

Millington was the officer with the Taser. It was revealed for the first time that the Taser was deployed three times in probe mode -- in which two electrical probes are fired at a person and conduct an electrical shock -- and twice in stun mode.

Lowe said the evidence shows Millington initially deployed the Taser in probe mode but the device appeared to malfunction because it was making a "clacking" sound, indicating the probes were not making proper contact, resulting in an incomplete electrical circuit.

After Dziekanski was on the ground and continued to struggle, Millington deployed the Taser twice more in stun mode, he said.

It took about 30 seconds after the last Taser shock for officers to restrain and handcuff Dziekanski, Lowe said.

A use-of-force expert from a police force outside the RCMP reviewed the police investigation and concluded the officers' actions were consistent with RCMP policy and training, he said.

The RCMP also disclosed Friday that two of the officers involved in the incident had been transferred to undisclosed locations after a number of "ugly" taunting incidents. Police wouldn't elaborate.

One officer remained in B.C., working on "other functions" -- not front-line duties -- and another has been suspended for an unrelated incident, said RCMP Assistant Commissioner Al Macintyre, who is in charge of criminal operations in B.C.

He said the four Mounties will cooperate with the Braidwood inquiry, which has been delayed awaiting the charge-approval decision.

The incident has been difficult for the RCMP and the officers involved, said Macintyre, who acknowledged the grief it has caused Dziekanski's mother.

"The RCMP is committed to learning as much as possible from this incident and making adjustments to its policies and practices where needed," Macintyre said.

"Since this incident, the RCMP has made a number of changes to its conducted energy weapon [Taser] policies, training, practices and reporting requirements, and we are certainly open to making further improvements," he said.

He said changes already made include: restricting the use of the weapons to incidents involving threats to officer or public safety; requiring RCMP officers to be re-certified annually on the use of conducted energy weapons; testing of the weapons themselves; enhanced use-of-force reporting; and analysis of reporting on conducted energy weapon usage.

"There are some who believe the conducted energy weapon should no longer be used by police. There is obviously a lot of emotion around this issue," Macintyre said, adding that policy decisions should be based on facts and scientific data, not emotion.

The RCMP has initiated independent electronic testing of a sampling of Tasers, including voltage variance, Macintyre said.

He said the airport death was still being investigated by the B.C. coroner service, which will hold an inquest, and the RCMP Public Complaints Commission.

MLA Mike Farnworth, the NDP public safety critic, said the Braidwood inquiry needs to answer many questions the public has about the incident and the reasoning behind the charge-assessment decision.

"There are a lot of outstanding questions the public needs answers to," Farnworth said. "I think the public will want to know why [charges were not laid] -- the logic and reasoning behind it."

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