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Friday, March 13, 2009

Is the RCMP's credibility gone?

March 13, 2009
By Paul Willcocks, Courier-Islander

I covered court in Alberta for a little while. RCMP officers often testified. Sometimes, they were a little evasive or obviously coached. But almost invariably, I assumed you could trust their version of events.

More importantly, so did judges and juries.

Now the Dziekanski inquiry evidence shows that is no longer true.

The inquiry into Robert Dziekanski's death is on a two-week break. But the evidence so far has been devastating for the RCMP's credibility.

Three of the four officers involved have testified. Their actions seemed to me reckless and unnecessary; their response to the dying man unprofessional. But those are judgment calls the inquiry will make.

Two other things have been much more alarming.

The first is the conflict between what really happened, captured on a video that has been played over and over, second by second, and what the officers - and the RCMP said - happened.

Officers will make mistakes given the quick judgments and stresses of police work.

But we expect them to be reliable, competent, honest witnesses, even in stressful times. We believe their notes, "made in their own handwriting, at the time," as they say in court, reflect what really happened.

The three officers who have testified at the inquiry failed that test. And the false information they provided, in their notes and in interviews that night and the next day with RCMP investigators, was self-serving. It would probably be the accepted record, if a Victoria traveller hadn't kept his video camera rolling throughout the deadly encounter.

Const. Gerry Rundel was the first to testify at the inquiry. He told the RCMP homicide officers investigating the death that Dzienkanski had waved a stapler above his head in a threatening way.

But the video showed that never happened. Dzienkanski picked up the stapler, but never brandished it as a weapon or held it above waist height.

Const. Bill Bentley wrote in his notes that night that "subject grabbed stapler and came at officers screaming." He told the investigators that Dziekanski "came at the police screaming." He said that as soon as they arrived, Dziekanski started backing away, looking for something to grab. He had picked up something and "kind of swung it at us."

The video, he conceded at the inquiry, showed that none of those things actually happened.

Bentley also told the homicide investigators Dziekanski was "fighting through" the Taser so the officers had to wrestle him to the ground.

That didn't happen either. The video shows Dziekanski being hit and falling on his back instantly. Police jumped on top of him after that.

Const. Kwesi Millington told investigators Dziekanski had raised the stapler in the air and stepped toward the police in a "threatening manner." The video showed that didn't happen.

Millington, who fired the Taser, told investigators Dziekanski didn't go down when he was hit. He had to be shot again and wrestled to the ground by the three officers.

The video showed Dziekanski fell immediately. The second Taser shot came literally one second later as he lay on his back, legs in the air. The officers didn't wrestle him to the ground.

It could be understood if there were small errors in their notes and evidence. It was a stressful night.

But police are trained observers. How could they recall three officers wrestling a man to the ground, or someone charging at them screaming, when those things just didn't happen?

Either the officers are terribly incompetent, or they were dishonest.And without the video - which the RCMP tried to suppress - their stories would not likely have been questioned.

The other troubling aspect of their testimony was the statements by all three that they had followed policy and their training. They would do nothing different if confronted with the same situation, they testified.

The RCMP's credibility is essential to its effectiveness. It is now in tatters.

Footnote: The inquiry is on a two-week break. The fourth RCMP officer will testify on March 23, when it resumes. Crown prosecutors decided against charging the officers with any offences after receiving the report from RCMP investigators. It's not known how significant the officers' inaccurate statements were in that process.

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