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Sunday, January 18, 2009

Second phase of taser inquiry examines death at Vancouver's airport

January 18, 2009
The Canadian Press

VANCOUVER, B.C. — The final hours of Robert Dziekanski's life, from when he boarded a plane in Poland to when he lay writhing on the floor of Vancouver's airport after being stunned by an RCMP Taser, will be recounted by dozens of witnesses at a public inquiry beginning Monday.

Retired judge Thomas Braidwood will spend the next six weeks overseeing the second phase of an inquiry prompted by Dziekanski's death in October 2007, which triggered ardent debate on stun gun use across the country.

The first half of the inquiry, a study commission held last year, broadly examined Tasers and their use. But the second phase will focus specifically on what happened to Dziekanski and look for recommendations that could prevent a similar incident in the future.

"They want to know actually what did happen, from the time he's on the ground until he's Tasered and even beyond," says Art Vertlieb, lawyer for the inquiry. "The government wants to really know. The mother wants to know. She's entitled to know what happened to her son."

Dziekanski, a construction worker who did not speak English, arrived in Vancouver on the afternoon of Oct. 13, 2007, to live with his mother in Kamloops, B.C. Ten hours later, visibly nervous, sweating and confused, Dziekanski began throwing furniture in the airport's international arrivals area. Four RCMP officers arrived and within seconds stunned him five times with a Taser - a confrontation that was caught on video and broadcast around the world on television and the Internet.

Much is known about what happened to Dziekanski before he died - his fear of flying, his wandering around for hours looking for his mother, his inability to communicate with anyone at the airport - but the inquiry will aim to fill in the blanks.

A long list of witnesses, including passengers and staff on Dziekanski's flight, customs officials and the four RCMP officers, will detail the events leading up to his death, the officers' actions and how police and other agencies responded in the days and weeks that followed.

Perhaps the most anticipated testimony will come from the four RCMP officers, whose appearance was in doubt until Crown prosecutors announced last month that none of them will be charged. The RCMP had said it couldn't participate in the inquiry until that decision, a lingering uncertainty that saw the inquiry postponed twice, but now the RCMP and Vertlieb say all four officers will appear. About a dozen lawyers will be at the inquiry, representing each of the four officers, Canada Border Services Agency, the airport, the B.C. Civil Liberties Association and Dziekanski's mother, Zophia Cisowski.

Cisowski's lawyer, Walter Kosteckyj, says his client wants a full account of what happened and wants to see all agencies involved - including the RCMP, the border agency and Vancouver International Airport - take responsibility. "Up until now, particularly from the police point of view, it was made to sound as if it was Mr. Dziekanski's fault solely," said Kosteckyj. "There were various agencies that let Mr. Dziekanski down." Kosteckyj says he hopes the inquiry will prompt financial compensation for Cisowski, who has been unable to work since her son's death.

The RCMP has steadfastly defended its use of Tasers and the actions of the officers involved in Dziekanski's death.

A spokesman for the force, Sgt. Tim Shields, said the inquiry will allow the RCMP to clearly lay out the facts of the case, which he suggested have been overshadowed by the dramatic video of the confrontation. "If you take the time to actually read about the events that took place, it will definitely give you a much broader understanding than if you had just watched the video," said Shields. "There's always more to the story than what a one-dimensional video will show you."

Grace Pastine, lawyer for the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, says she's most concerned with the officers' actions and the ensuing police investigation. "We think that there's a real potential for conflicts of interest when police are called upon to investigate the police," said Pastine

Braidwood's report from the first part of the inquiry is expected to be released within six weeks, and there are a handful of other investigations and reports that are finished or are still to come.

Just last week, the complaints commissioner for the RCMP announced yet another investigation examining all cases in which people have died after being stunned by RCMP Tasers.

In all, more than 20 people in Canada have died after being hit with a Taser.

Dziekanski's death also prompted changes from the airport and the border agency, including better access to interpreters and increased surveillance to keep watch for passengers in distress.

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