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Thursday, February 26, 2009

Raphael Alexander: The Dziekanski Debacle

February 26, 2009
The National Post

Prior to the Braidwood Inquiry, there was already some damning information regarding the October 2007 homicide of Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski by four RCMP officers. There was ample eyewitness testimony, as well as a video tape that the RCMP seized and did not release publicly for several months. In that video one can see a distraught Mr.Dziekanski who appears frustrated, frightened and confused. His actions do not seem aggressive, but defensive. Here is a man who doesn’t speak any English, has been trapped in an airport without any help for 10 hours in a strange country whilst trying to find his mother, and he begins to “lose control”. In the video one can see the four RCMP officers approach Mr.Dziekanski, and by all observable universal body language, appears to surrender. And yet within 30 seconds of confrontation, the Polish immigrant is writhing on the floor while four officers pin him to the ground. In what would be yet more horrific revelations, the RCMP officers did not administer CPR and refused to allow first responders to attempt resuscitation.

Not only were none of the officers charged, they were not even placed under suspension, and their fraternal leadership issued an immediate statement backing up the actions of officers. In fact the crown even said that the police used “reasonable force” under the circumstances. Reasonable force, as it turns out, that is becoming less and less reasonable under witness testimony in the Braidwood Inquiry.

The first mistake appears to be the fact that the four officers approached the man without any game plan whatsoever. Without any consultation with local witnesses or on scene security, Constable Gerry Rundel testified “I don’t recall anything being said” before they proceeded to question the man. A witness even told the Constable that Mr.Dziekanski did not speak English, yet the officers have testified they approached him and asked him questions in English without seeking a translator.

The next thing the officers did was blast Mr. Dziekanski, five times, without any warning at all. Even had the man been able to speak English, the officers simply blasted him with the taser, later testifying there was “no time” to decide on any other course of action. And yet in the very rules of engagement involving these weapons, it warns against multiple taser blasts, and to allow the victim space to breath and recover from the shock after engagement. The fact that Constable Rundel told the Inquiry “[we] acted and responded appropriately” should send shivers down the spine of every Canadian, because it means that not only will these police officers escape responsibility for the negligent homicide of Mr.Dziekanski, they cannot even admit to the errors in judgment that led to the murder.

We hear that there was “no time” to assess Mr.Dziekanski prior to his murder. And yet here was a man who had been in the airport for 10 hours without causing any injury to an individuals person, nor was he aggressive to anyone in particular [he was violent with inanimate objects]. If one thing is clear from the video, time was not a factor at all to these officers. Had they interviewed eyewitnesses, security guards, or called for the area to be cordoned off and an interpreter called, it is a certainty that Mr.Dziekanski would be alive today.

We’re also led to believe that four RCMP police officers, supposedly trained in these types of confrontations, felt their safety was in great peril and needed to act immediately by tasering the victim five times within 30 seconds of meeting a man who didn’t speak any English. Four men trained in subduing aggressive criminals did not decide to consult one another, or the eyewitnesses, or back off and try to calm Mr.Dziekanski down. No. They were clearly all of one mind: take Robert Dziekanski down first, and ask questions later. And what was the source of their terribly irrational fear of one single man with a chair being held as a shield in front of him? A stapler, we’re to believe. Four highly trained men were afraid of a single man in an area free of any other bystanders, because he had a “glazed look” in his eye and was holding a stapler.

The epic failings in Mr.Dziekanski’s homicide doesn’t stop there. Even as Richmond firefighters testified that the RCMP police wouldn’t take the handcuffs off an unconscious and unbreathing Mr. Dziekanski, the airport manager failed to call their own emergency on site airport EMS crew. And now, instead of admitting the mistakes that were made, and perhaps working toward finding ways to eliminate future incidents, the police in question say they “regret” what happened, but wouldn’t have done anything differently. This means that anyone who is having a bad day [say, for instance, you have a horrible flight and your luggage is lost and you get angry and upset enough that security or RCMP respond] can wind up in a pine box because you’re tasered on contact.

Trying to deflect the blame for these events is appalling. There is no justification for the way Canada failed Mr. Dziekanski, but we certainly don’t have to continue failing his memory by obfuscating what happened. The sooner we admit that the police can make grievous errors causing death, the sooner we can find a way to mitigate future incidents, and allow his mother to begin healing. An admission of wrong-doing from the RCMP and an apology to Sofia Cisowski is in order.

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