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Thursday, February 26, 2009

Mountie denies coverup at Taser inquiry

February 26, 2009
Neal Hall, Canwest News Service
VANCOUVER -- The lawyer representing the Polish government at the Braidwood inquiry punched a large hole on Thursday in the police justification for using a Taser against an immigrant at the Vancouver International Airport in 2007.

Richmond RCMP Constable Bill Bentley conceded under vigorous cross-examination that one of his colleagues could be seen on video using a hand signal to direct Robert Dziekanski to stand by a counter.

Const. Bentley denied he was part of an RCMP coverup of the circumstances surrounding Mr. Dziekanski's death, which made headlines around the world.

A day earlier, Const. Bentley testified he feared for his safety after Mr. Dziekanski disobeyed a police command, threw up his arms in the air and appeared to walk away from the officers, which he saw as an act of defiance.

But lawyer Don Rosenbloom, representing the Polish government, took Const. Bentley through an amateur video of the incident frame by frame, pointing out that Mr. Dziekanski, after "shrugging," is directed by another officer, RCMP Corporal Benjamin Robinson, to stand over by a counter.

Mr. Dziekanski does so and is surrounded by the four uniformed officers. When Mr. Dziekanski grabbed a stapler off the counter and swung it in front of him, Const. Bentley pulled out his police baton.

At the same time, RCMP Constable Kwesi Millington fired his Taser at Mr. Dziekanski, who was exhausted after leaving Poland about 30 hours earlier.

Mr. Rosenbloom asked the officer if he thought he and his colleagues handled the situation inappropriately.

"No, I don't think we did," Const. Bentley told the inquiry, which is probing the death of Mr. Dziekanski on Oct. 14, 2007.

The witness said he thought Mr. Dziekanski was only Tasered twice. He didn't realize the Taser was fired five times for a total of 31 seconds, although the probes may not have connected to Mr. Dziekanski's body the entire time.

He recalled the first shot failed to cause Mr. Dziekanski to fall, so Cpl. Robinson told Const. Millington: "Hit him again."

But Const. Bentley conceded when the video was played, Mr. Dziekanski falls to the ground screaming after six seconds.

"So the second Taser shot was not necessary," Mr. Rosenbloom suggested.

"Yes, perhaps," Const. Bentley replied. He said under further questioning that his initial police statement was erroneous when he stated two other officers brought down Mr. Dziekanski because he was "fighting through" being Tasered.

The lawyer pointed out that Mr. Dziekanski had no voluntary control of his muscles as he fell as he was Tasered.

Const. Bentley said Mr. Dziekanski's screaming and the look on his face suggested he was "fighting through it."

Mr. Rosenbloom suggested the look on Mr. Dziekanski face and his screaming could have been caused by the extreme pain of the Taser.

"It could be both. It depends how you interpret it," Const. Bentley replied.

Asked by Mr. Rosenbloom if he had ever discussed the incident with the three other Mounties involved, Const. Bentley said he did - at a critical incident debriefing weeks after the incident. He couldn't recall the date but it might have occurred after the amateur video was publicly released, he said.

A police psychologist attended, along with two other officers, including Richmond RCMP Corporal Nycki Basra, Const. Bentley added.

"Everyone gave their version of events," he said of the four officers, adding they talked about their feelings caused by the incident.

Commission counsel Art Vertlieb later arose to tell commissioner Thomas Braidwood, a retired judge, that it was the first time he had heard of the debriefing and asked the RCMP to produce any notes or record of the meeting.

Earlier in the day, under questioning by Walter Kosteckyj, the lawyer representing Mr. Dziekanski's mother, Const. Bentley denied he was involved in a coverup.

He testified his recollection of the events leading to Mr. Dziekanski's death changed after seeing the amateur video on Nov. 14, 2007, so he contacted police investigators to give another statement on Nov. 22.

"You've heard of the CYA principle?" asked Mr. Kosteckyj.

"Cover your butt, yes," Const. Bentley replied. "There was no coverup, if that's what you're getting at."

Const. Bentley said seeing the video "refreshed my memory and I wanted to set the record straight."

The cause of death of Mr. Dziekanski, 40, was listed as "sudden death following restraint."

He had no drugs or alcohol in his system that night. He had spent about 10 hours in the airport, unable to find his mother.

He had never been on a plane before and came to Canada to live with his mother, who had waited hours at the airport but eventually returned home to Kamloops after being told by officials that her son could not be located.

The Crown announced last December that no charges would be laid against the officers, who were justified in their use of force.

The inquiry will resume on Monday with the testimony of Const. Millington, who deployed the Taser.

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