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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

EDITORIAL: Failing Mr. Dziekanski

December 16, 2008
Globe and Mail

British Columbia has given license to a frightening use of police power by endorsing the fatal tasering of Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski. The force used by four Mounties on the unarmed 40-year-old was "reasonable and necessary," says B.C.'s Attorney General's department. Its report, a year in the making, blames the victim in this highly avoidable death.

No one who has seen the videotape of the last minutes of Mr. Dziekanski's life will find balance or fairness in the report released last Friday. Moments before police arrived, a woman approached the distressed traveller, speaking to him gently and without fear. That goes unmentioned. Instead, the B.C. report stresses that, when police surrounded him, he picked up a stapler. But is it reasonable and necessary in Canada to taser a man, and put a knee to the back of his neck, for picking up a stapler? Mr. Dziekanski was distressed and exhausted after a 30-hour trip, and unable to speak English. He was, predictably, terrified.

B.C. was sensible in saying that the Mounties should not be criminally charged in the Oct. 2007 death. It is the RCMP taser guidelines they acted under that are desperately out of whack. But the Attorney General's criminal-justice branch did not need to write an apologia for the Mounties. It did not need to share findings of startling irrelevance from the RCMP investigation of its own officers. Consider: Mr. Dziekanski was apprehensive when he boarded the airplane to Canada. (How dare he!) And he was a chronic alcoholic. (The report doesn't give specific details that would explain how it knows this.) Even if true, an autopsy found no drink or drugs in his system.

Yet the facts given to the B.C. criminal-justice branch in no way cleared the taser of responsibility for Mr. Dziekanski's death. Three unnamed forensic pathologists cited in the report said "the stress of the physical restraint worsened by the deployment of the taser" could have led to the cardiac arrest. Given that acknowledged risk, why should the taser, followed by the knee on the neck, have been necessary? If the risk is so high on a man sweating, dazed and breathing heavily, shouldn't police consider other options first? Why was it necessary to use the taser within 30 seconds of the police arrival on the scene?

The police had options. Time was on their side. The offer of a glass of water might have helped. So might an attempt to find someone who spoke Mr. Dziekanski's language.

This is the tragedy of the taser: It turns the officers who wield it into every bit the automatons that Mr. Dziekanski seemed. Police armed with the purportedly safe 50,000-volt stun gun simply couldn't see any other option. Thus Mr. Dziekanski's death became almost inevitable when the Mounties arrived.

Far from being reasonable and necessary, the tasering of Robert Dziekanski shows why the Canadian government should rewrite the Mounties' taser-use policy.

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