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Monday, February 16, 2009

Taser death followed the rules

February 16, 2009
Petti Fong
Toronto Star

VANCOUVER – Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski died by the book.

Four weeks of testimony in a Vancouver courtroom have given the nation a tale of everyone doing their job, looking the other way and failing to take the next logical step to save the agitated man.

From border agents to airport staff, witness after witness at the public inquiry into Dziekanski's death said they followed the rules.

No one has yet said anything to indicate that something went wrong in the lead-up to the RCMP shooting of Dziekanski, 40, with a Taser at Vancouver International Airport.

Airport security guard Lance Rudek told the inquiry this week his job was to "observe and report" and not "to handle a person."

Rudek said he saw the RCMP fire the Taser only after Dziekanski began squeezing the stapler he was holding and staples came out.

On Oct. 14, 2007, airport worker Heather Staller, helping monitor calls, knew that the Emergency Response Services team should be contacted. Trained medics who were already in the airport would have arrived at the scene minutes before ambulances dispatched from outside. But Staller testified she was told by her supervisors not to call the airport's ERS unit, a fact she relayed to her friend Andrew Caldwell, the supervisor that night at the ERS, via email.

"I hate this stuff ... office politics," Staller wrote to Caldwell.

"You can't get in trouble for not responding though."

A maintenance worker, Karol Vrba, the only one at the airport that night who could speak Polish, volunteered to help translate and told his dispatchers to call him.

He was told: "Don't worry about it."

The four RCMP officers are due to testify Feb. 23. They were investigated by the RCMP, and crown counsel in B.C. decided there was not enough evidence to lay criminal charges against them.

Kim Rossmo, a former Vancouver police officer who teaches at Texas State University's Department of Criminal Justice, said it's not enough to say the rules were followed.

"The bottom line is someone died who didn't have to die and the police have to think carefully about how to prevent this from happening again," he said in an interview. "Procedures are supposed to be designed to prevent problems."

Following rules are what police officers and firefighters are supposed to learn in training. But it's the experience picked up from being in the field that gives an officer the insight to take control of a situation, said Wayne Humphry, a 30-year veteran of the Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services. Humphry, who trains firefighters, said one of the first things he noticed in video of the incident was how nobody seemed to be in charge.

"It didn't appear that anyone was taking the time to calm down and communicate," said Humphry. "One of the first things that comes with experience is learning how to keep the emotions out of it."

Humphry said he can teach policies and put recruits through training exercises. But if a younger officer is thrown into a situation and the "experience bank" is low, the officer has trouble deciding when to go against dictated policies.

"There are cases when the rules don't apply and nothing but experience can tell you (that)," he said.

The lawyer for Zofia Cisowski, Dziekanski's mother, said the testimony indicates no one accepted blame and no one did more than they were supposed to do.

"Instead you've heard that police officers acted in accordance with their training, you've heard that the Taser isn't dangerous and you heard that there are other reasons why Mr. Dziekanski passed away," said Walter Kosteckyj. "It's time to show some leadership in all this instead of following along."

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