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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

EDITORIAL: Dangerously blank slates

February 25, 2009
Globe and Mail

He backed away, flipped his hands in the air, picked up a stapler. For these actions - as four Mounties advanced on him in the Vancouver International Airport - Robert Dziekanski was tasered, as was allowed under RCMP policy at the time, Constable Gerry Rundel testified at an inquiry this week. Mr. Dziekanski, a 40-year-old Polish immigrant who had been waiting 10 hours for his mother, died after being tasered five times.

If anyone still wonders why police forces across Canada need to toss their taser-use policies in the garbage and start again, Constable Rundel's testimony is instructive. Many of those policies say "combative" or "resistant" people can be tasered. But these words are merely a blank slate on which police may write almost any self-justification they wish. They give police a licence for the use of massive force, even where, as in this case, it is unjustifiable.

Mr. Dziekanski was deemed combative and "non-compliant" (a close cousin of "resistant"), Constable Rundel explained, because he stepped back and threw his hands in the air as if to say, "To hell with you." He did not raise the stapler over his head, as Constable Rundel had said in a formal statement earlier; this was an ex post facto justification shown to be false on a bystander's videotape.

The Mounties announced two weeks ago that they had changed their taser policy to reflect a "risk of death" to agitated individuals. The weapon is to be used only "where it is necessary to do so in circumstances of threats to officer or public safety." "Threats to safety" is, like "resistant" and "combative," a term that means everything and nothing, although the word "necessary" suggests a high hurdle. But other police forces in Canada haven't followed suit.

Instead, they have demonstrated how deeply they can thrust their heads into the sand. Yesterday, the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, and the Canadian Police Association, representing chiefs and police officers across the country, offered a defence of the taser as rote and mindless as that offered by Constable Rundel himself. Ontario Provincial Police Commissioner Julian Fantino even chastised the public for making "Monday morning quarterback decisions." Mr. Fantino was egregiously insulting; criticisms of the taser, he said, were coming from people who "could never pass recruitment training." Only police can judge the police, a view that would fit nicely into a dictatorship.

It should now be clear that those in charge of most police forces in Canada are incapable of examining the lessons of Mr. Dziekanski's death on Oct. 14, 2007. The taser is being used as a weapon of convenience; its risks, its power and its painfulness cry out for limiting its uses to situations of real danger. Civilian authorities need to follow the lead of the RCMP and write narrower rules for taser use.