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Thursday, March 05, 2009

EDITORIAL: RCMP's reputation takes a beating at Braidwood inquiry

March 5, 2009
Vancouver Sun

You'll remember that shortly after Robert Dziekanski was Tasered and died in Vancouver International Airport, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police said it would not be returning a videotape of the incident to its rightful owner for one or two years, because it might taint witness testimony.

Well, the tape has certainly had a negative effect, but what it has tainted is the reputation of the RCMP. And it, along with other evidence from the Braidwood inquiry into Dziekanski's death, reveals that the RCMP and police forces across the country have a lot of work to do to regain the public's trust.

In fact, the tape reveals what could be construed as a practice of using Tasers first and asking questions later, and worse, it reveals that the attending officers couldn't even trust the notes they made shortly after the incident.

This week, Const. Kwesi Millington, the officer who fired the Taser, testified before the inquiry, stating that he feared for the officers' safety after Dziekanski picked up a stapler.

His comments prompted snickers from spectators who watched the tape, and who obviously questioned how four officers, clad in Kevlar vests, carrying guns and pepper spray and trained in self-defence, could fear a lone man with a stapler.

Clearly, if the officers' actions were in keeping with RCMP policy at the time, then the policy permitted the Tasering of suspects upon even the slightest provocation.

Worse, Millington Tasered Dziekanski a total of five times, even after Dziekanski had fallen to the ground and after the officers had applied pressure to his back.

Now it's awfully hard to understand how the officers could still have been frightened of Dziekanski, but that's still not the worst of it. No, the worst thing is that if the videotape didn't exist, one would have to rely on Millington's notes about the incident, notes that Millington was forced to repeatedly admit were wrong.

In fact, confronted by videotape evidence about the number of times Dziekanski was Tasered, Millington had to confess that one would get a "distorted view" of the incident by reading his notes.

This is a devastating admission because, in most cases of Tasering, the officer's testimony is all we have to rely on.

And police forces have repeatedly defended their use of Tasers, and have even taken shots at critics -- witness the recent press conference held by the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police and the Canadian Police Association, where representatives questioned the fitness of those who criticize Taser use.

Given that the police must have the trust and respect of the public if they are to function adequately, this is an attitude that must change, particularly in light of the evidence from the Braidwood inquiry.

That means that police forces across the country must be open to reconsidering their Taser policies in the face of honest concern -- the RCMP's recent modest changes to its policy are good first steps, but only first steps -- and must be willing to admit that they made mistakes.

And not just when they're called before a commission of inquiry.

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