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Thursday, January 22, 2009

Border officer says she did her job in tearful testimony B.C. taser inquiry

January 22, 2009
Canadian Press

VANCOUVER, B.C. - The border officer who told Robert Dziekanski's mother that the man likely wasn't in Vancouver's airport says it was "unbelievably shocking" that he died, but says she did her job and wouldn't have done anything differently.

Dziekanski stayed mostly unnoticed in a secure customs area for hours on Oct. 13, 2007, before he finally cleared customs, only to encounter four RCMP officers who stunned him with a Taser.

While Dziekanski was inside the customs hall, his mother and her friend were in a public meeting area asking airport staff and an immigration officer for help in finding the man who didn't speak English

Tina Zadravec received a call from Zofia Cisowski's friend Rick Hutchinson, telling her they had been waiting for hours and wondering if Dziekanski was still in customs.

Zadravec told the inquiry into Dziekanski's death that she quickly scanned several spots in a secondary screening area.

When she saw no sign of the man, she made several suggestions to the Cisowski and Hutchinson, including heading home to Kamloops, B.C., and waiting for a phone call.

She said she didn't attempt to page Dziekanski or call other staff who would have been able to easily confirm he had arrived in the customs hall hours earlier.

And when Zadravec actually saw Dziekanski later in the evening, she alerted a co-worker that she had received a call about him earlier, but did not try contacting Cisowski or suggest it to other officers.

"I think about it a lot, but I wouldn't do anything differently," she said while wiping tears from her face. "If I knew he was going to die, I would have done everything differently, but I did my job."

Zadravec also told the inquiry she had not been trained to react differently since the death.

It was only when her shift was winding down that another officer told her about Dziekanski's fatal encounter with police. "It was unbelievably shocking, because the earlier interaction was just absolutely fine, it appeared pleasant, calm, relaxed," she said. "Becoming a permanent resident is usually an absolutely joyous event, and it was just truly horrible that this person died."

Zadravec told police in a statement in December 2007 that Dziekanski appeared drunk and like he had just woken up. She assumed that explained the delay between when he landed and eventually showed up to be processed.

Lawyers for the RCMP officers focused on those statements, which prompted Dziekanski's mother sitting in the gallery to shout out, "Liar."

An autopsy found no alcohol or drugs in Dziekanski's system.

Zadravec said she was aware there were translators available, but didn't call one.

She also said even if she did find out any information about Dziekanski, the federal Privacy Act would have prevented her from telling Cisowski or her friend anyway. That revelation prompted a question from retired judge Thomas Braidwood, who is overseeing the inquiry. "How can someone outside (the customs area) determine whether their friend has come?" asked Braidwood. "I'm not aware of any way they could do that," Zadravec replied.

Cisowski's lawyer, Walter Kosteckyj, said staff had numerous opportunities to help Dziekanski and his mother, but said instead their response was, at best, "benign neglect." "This whole mess that we have going on where we hide behind the Privacy Act to claim that we can't help people, it's just a bunch of nonsense," he told reporters during a break in the hearings. "Here was a simple situation. Had the airport authority and their employees wanted to go in and look for Mr. Dziekanski, there was nothing stopping them. ... Had they really wanted to deal with this woman's plight, after six or seven hours of begging for help, it could have been done, even then."

The airport and the Canada Border Services Agency have been criticized for how they dealt with Dziekanski, specifically for not finding a translator and for allowing him to stay in a secure customs area for hours without anyone noticing he was there or that he hadn't made it through customs.

The inquiry is scheduled to sit until the end of February, at which time Braidwood will prepare a report on what happened and make recommendations aimed at preventing a similar incident in the future.

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