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Friday, March 06, 2009

EDITORIAL: RCMP attempts to deflect blame hurt all officers

March 6, 2009
The Star Phoenix

In a 1970s satire, the Monty Python group demonstrated how one goes about protecting oneself when attacked by someone wielding a banana.

John Cleese, playing the role of the sergeant major, orders Graham Chapman to attack him with a banana, only to shoot the assailant with a revolver before he is struck by the fruit. "That was self-defence," Mr. Cleese insists when challenged for his excessive response.

It is funny because it is ridiculous. Unfortunately, it appears the RCMP in British Columbia didn't get the joke.

This week, the inquiry being conducted by B.C. Supreme Court justice Thomas Braidwood into the death of Robert Dziekanski was told on more than one occasion that the Polish immigrant had to be shot by a police officer repeatedly with a conducted energy weapon for fear that an office stapler Mr. Dziekanski was holding could be a dangerous weapon.

It's safe to say Mr. Dziekanski, who died after being shot five times with a Taser and then was pounced upon by four large RCMP officers, also didn't get the joke.

But many in the audience who openly scoffed at Const. Kwesi Millington when he attempted to brandish the office tool in a threatening manner, had no difficulty seeing how ridiculous was his and other officers' testimony that a stapler would frighten four large, well-armed and trained men wearing bullet-proof vests.

The tragedy isn't so much that Const. Millington was trying to justify his actions of Oct. 14, 2007. It would only be natural that he would look for some reasonable explanation as to why Mr. Dziekanski, who was confused and angry after being left alone in a reception area of the Vancouver airport for more than 10 hours following a 24-hour flight from Poland, should be left dead only seconds after RCMP arrived to calm him down.

What isn't natural -- and is a much greater insult to those police officers who diligently put themselves in harm's way almost daily to protect the public -- is that it took lawyers representing Mr. Dziekanski and the Polish government to push Const. Millington toward the truth while government solicitors ignored the obvious.

Almost from the moment the public heard about Mr. Dziekanski's death, the RCMP establishment went into high gear to justify the actions of its officers rather than strive to find out how such a seemingly innocent situation turned so deadly.

Until bystander Paul Pritchard went public with his concerns that the RCMP had confiscated a video he had shot of the event, the police service stuck to a story that was impossible to reconcile either with what witnesses alleged happened, or what was clearly seen on the video.

RCMP Sgt. Pierre Lemaitre initially suggested there were only three officers involved, that Mr. Dziekanski was "pounding on the glass windows that were there," and that the jolts from the Taser "didn't seem to have any kind of effect on him."

The police force then tried to prevent the release of the tapes, and later tried unsuccessfully to shift its story in an effort to reconcile its version of events with what's seen in the video.

This didn't do any favours for those officers involved in the incident. Time and again Const. Millington was caught out during his testimony.

What is most distressing, however, is that not one government lawyer or one member of the RCMP saw fit to hold the officers to account.

The opposite was the case.

The RCMP investigated itself over this incident and found, to no great surprise, that there was not enough evidence to pursue charges.

Similarly the B.C. attorney general's office examined the RCMP evidence and found no reason for charges.

One shouldn't be surprised by this lack of ability to recognize the difference. In the midst of the controversy over the death and the subsequent release of the tape, RCMP Commissioner William Elliott e-mailed the four officers involved, offering his personal support.

It isn't just the RCMP that's unwilling or unable to vigorously examine the evidence.

Last month, both the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police and the Canadian Police Association put out a position paper to suggest there is no evidence of any deaths being linked to use of a Taser.

Ontario Provincial Police commissioner Julian Fantino took it one step further, suggesting all of the deaths that have occurred in the wake of the stun guns being used on persons reflect nothing more than the poor work by journalists and a public who "just don't get it" and who couldn't even pass recruitment training.

It is no wonder that frontline officers are left exposed, as Const. Millington was this week.

The RCMP is staffed primarily by brave and dedicated officers concerned about the well-being of the public they serve. As we have seen in Saskatoon this week, with the trial over the deaths of Constables Robin Cameron and Marc Bourdages, these officers put their lives on the line for us every day.

They deserve to be treated like professionals and the public deserves to have a national police service it can trust -- not one whose attempts to deflect blame simply mock the good efforts of the majority.

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