February 28, 2009
Canadians still don't know the full truth about the split-second decisions RCMP officers made in the middle of the night a year-and-a-half ago at Vancouver International Airport, when they Tasered distraught Polish traveller Robert Dziekanski, who subsequently died while being pinned to the ground and arrested. But many details are emerging, thanks in part to a phalanx of lawyers representing the federal government, the RCMP, the Polish government, Mr. Dziekanski's mother-- all of whom are able to use the benefit of hindsight and slow-motion video to pull apart the officers' every flinch and gesture.
We will admit to being disappointed in the testimony of the two officers who have already appeared before the inquiry headed by Commissioner Thomas Braidwood. While insisting their actions were justifiable, Constables Bill Bentley and Gerry Rundel admitted this week that when they and two colleagues approached Mr. Dziekanski shortly after 1:25 a. m. on the morning of Oct. 14, 2007, they had no pre-arranged strategy for dealing with him and made little more than cursory attempts to communicate with him. Nor did they have any detailed information on the prologue to the incident, gleaned from airport staff, that might have explained why, within seconds of their arrival on the scene, they might be tempted to shoot Mr. Dziekanski five times with a conducted-energy weapon.
Const. Bentley was even forced to admit under cross-examination that his initial assessment of what had occurred was wrong. He had written in a notebook shortly after Mr. Dziekanski's death that "Subject grabbed stapler and came at members screaming." While insisting he still believed that account to be "accurate at the time" -- whatever that means -- he admitted last week at hearings in Vancouver that Mr. Dziekanski was neither screaming nor lunging at officers when they Tasered him.
While both constables still maintain that a very agitated Mr. Dziekanski appeared "combative" when they subdued him -- and Const. Rundel claimed he feared for his safety -- little either man said would seem to contradict the damning version of events Canadians saw on an amateur video recorded at the time by another passenger, Paul Pritchard. To wit: that officers walked quickly to the waiting area where Mr. Dziekanski paced back and forth frantically, cursing Polish and throwing furniture and a computer. After making no more than the most basic efforts to communicate with the man, who spoke no English, they moved quickly to their stun guns and fired charge after 50,000-volt charge into the suspect, even as they held him immobilized on the floor and one officer put his knee on Mr. Dziekanski's neck.
It seems likely the officers are sticking as much as possible to their original stories to keep from being crucified at the inquiry or being hung out to dry by Mountie brass as the sole culprits in this melodrama.
There is lots of blame to go around in the Polish visitor's death. Why, for instance, did he spend nearly six-and-a-half hours in the international baggage claim at the airport without any employee -- either from the Canada Border Services Agency, the airport or an airline -- seeking to help him? Why were offers of help from a Polish-speaking airport employee ignored? Why was the airport's own emergency response team not called to the scene?
We will wait for the conclusions of the Braidwood inquiry to become public before making up our minds on culpability. But since the four officers responsible for the "takedown" are the only four participants whose actions have been caught on tape, they would be right in fearing that they are being made scapegoats. Their actions cannot be taken in isolation, but as a symptom of practices and training standards in place within the RCMP as a whole.
Since the Dziekanski incident, the RCMP has significantly changed its policy on the deployment of Tasers. In particular, the new policy contradicts the one in place in the fall of 2007 concerning the lethality of conducted-energy weapons, "particularly for acutely agitated individuals." This would seem to be a backhanded admission by the national police force that its former policy, which suggested Tasers were the best way to subdue unhinged subjects, was wrong.
Because police have been granted the power to use deadly force in our society, their every use of it should be examined, in excruciating detail if necessary. To protect the rights and lives of citizens -- and to ensure Canadians never lose their faith in police judgment and actions -- officers must work constantly to ensure they never misuse their power.
If the Dziekanski officers acted rashly and excessively, they should be disciplined. But as it is unlikely they were the only ones to blame, if they are to be punished, any others who failed their duty should be sanctioned, too.
WELCOME to TRUTH ... not TASERS
Saturday, February 28, 2009
February 28, 2009