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Saturday, February 28, 2009

Mounties looking like Keystone Cops

February 28, 2009
By Don Martin, Calgary Herald

Police officers have three primary serve-and-protect obligations--investigate threats to civilian safety immediately, use their weapons responsibly and tell the truth faithfully under oath.

While the vast majority do their dangerous duty professionally, elements of the RCMP struck out on all three fronts this week to create the unfortunate optics of Dudley Do-Right joining the Keystone Cops.

In a strange series of random events, RCMP failed to perform due diligence in investigating reports of two SOS-signalling skiers lost for 10 days in the Rockies, police representatives staged a bizarre defence of Taser safety while refusing to produce the studies to bolster their case and several RCMP officers were clearly nose-stretching, if not engaging in a conspiracy of fabrication, while testifying at the Robert Dziekanski fatality inquiry.

The force's public relations hell dawned Tuesday when a parade of police association representatives arrived in Ottawa to "demystify" the Taser for national media, arguing it's a weapon that deserves a spot on every police belt.

The timing was awful. Three hours away, the Dziekanski inquiry was watching slow-motion footage of the Polish immigrant's multiple Taser-zapping and sudden death.

Yet the officers in Ottawa were adamant. Pay no attention to the video of that man twitching behind the glass, they basically argued. The Taser is an essential enforcement tool and totally safe--and they've got 150 studies to support that. Ontario Provincial Police commissioner Julian Fantino spun the purpose of their publicity campaign this way: "We decided it was time to set the record straight to give you and the public accurate information as best as we can and to demystify and bring some honesty and integrity into reporting."

But with respect, one reporter wondered, what studies have the RCMP used to prove the Taser poses all the takedown risk of a knuckle-wrapping? "Do your own homework," Chief Fantino fumed. "We've looked at them, consulted and validated them."

(This denied request for information is apparently part of RCMP culture. The federal information commissioner this week gave the force failing grades in meeting its information access obligations, listing it as one of the worst federal offenders for denying requests.) The only greater mystification than those alleged studies was the date they picked for their campaign kickoff.

To be hailing the Taser miracle at the precise moment an RCMP officer was squirming under Dziekanski inquiry fire in Vancouver was a publicity juxtaposition only a fiendish enemy of the technology could've arranged. Police testimony started changing on the fly as amateur video put the fib to facts which clearly seemed to have been negotiated in secret by responding officers seeking cover from their actions.

Add this discomfort to the RCMP's admitted failure to order a search for a missing couple in the B. C. backcountry last week, which resulted in a woman's tragic death, and you have a humiliating one-week triple whammy of lousy news for an RCMP that supposedly cleaned up its act after changing commissioners in 2006.

The lousy optics didn't have to gush forth this way.

There are a number of studies clearing the Taser of killer capabilities, which police representatives should've produced on demand, and police do support national rules governing Taser use to reduce risks to police or public safety.

And while the infamous Taser video suggests the inquiry will eventually find Dziekanski was the victim of aggressive police deploying Tasers excessively, contrite admissions of this ugly reality would've salvaged police reputations better than their apparent falsehoods of desperation.

RCMP might also want to update mountain rescue manuals to insist multiple SOS signals in snow-covered backcountry are reasonable signs of somebody in distress and thus search-worthy. After all, the force should be with us, not putting Canadians at risk of injury or neglect.

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