Kelly McParland on the Dziekanski inquiry: What part of 'tell the truth' do the Mounties not understand?
March 3, 2009
Kelly McParland, National Post
Whatever conclusion is ultimately reached at the Braidwood inquiry into the death of Robert Dziekanski, one conclusion now seems inevitable: the original tale peddled by the RCMP about that day at Vancouver airport was overwhelmingly bogus.
The 40-year-old Mr. Dziekanski did not grab a killer stapler and wave it threateningly over his head, as the police claimed. He did not advance on four officers with threatening gestures. He did not stay on his feet after the first jolt of the Taser they fired at him. He did not have to be wrestled to the ground. He did not, it appears from the testimony of the officers who were there that day, represent any kind of threat at all.
Yet he’s dead. He was Tasered five times by four officers who insisted they felt they were in danger at the time. They Tasered him within 30 seconds of arriving on the scene. They didn’t discuss the situation among themselves first, or formulate a plan of action. They didn’t make any effort to communicate with the Polish-speaking Mr. Dziekanski other than a few peremptory commands. They didn’t speak to any of the many airport employees and passengers who had been observing Mr. Dziekanski’s actions. They wouldn’t stop Tasering him even after he fell to the ground on the first jolt.
They’re sorry he’s dead. They didn’t mean for him to die. Maybe they wouldn’t have kept Tasering him if they knew he was going to die. Would they do anything different today? Um ... not that they’ll admit.
To suggest the death of Mr. Dziekanski is appalling doesn’t begin to describe it. Even the initial and oft-repeated claim that Mr. Dziekanski was "agitated" after spending 10 hours wandering around Vancouver airport following a lengthy trip from Poland might not be true. The video of the event, played repeatedly at the inquiry, could be interpreted to indicate he was doing his best to comply with whatever it was the police were demanding, in a language he couldn't understand.
The actions of the four Mounties raise questions extending far beyond this one horrific incident. Two of the three officers who have testified so far have acknowledged the story they told in the aftermath of Mr. Dziekanski’s death was inaccurate in many critical ways. Const. Bill Bentley wrote in his notebook that Mr. Dziekanski "grabbed stapler and came at members screaming," but admitted last week that no such thing happened.
Const. Kwesi Millington, who actually fired the taser, was worse. Const. Millington initially told police investigators that, once the four Mounties arrived on the scene, Mr. Dziekanski started moving away from them, and kept yelling. Videos show it didn’t happen. Corp Millington claimed Mr. Dziekanski grabbed a stapler and came at the officers, waving it over his head. He did pick up a stapler, but there is no sign of him raising it above belt level or advancing on the officers. In his formal written report, Const. Millington said Mr. Dziekanski “swung the stapler wildly” at the officers. He admitted on Monday that wasn't true.
Most damaging, the video played at the hearing shows that, despite all claims, Mr. Dziekanski screamed and dropped to the ground at the first jolt from the Taser. Const. Millington had previously claimed he stayed on his feet, continuing to advance on the police while making threatening gestures. He told investigators they were forced to wrestle him to the ground, zapping him over and over until he stopped resisting.
All, it appears now, bogus. Mr. Dziekanski fell on the first jolt, landing on his back, his feet in the air. No one touched him until he was on the ground. There was no advance, no threats, no danger. They just kept Tasering him because “it was a fluid situation”, and he had, after all, grabbed a stapler.
Oh yes, the stapler. It’s the stapler that gives this tragedy it’s sad air of farce. Just what did the four trained police officers think Mr. Dziekanski was going to do with the stapler? Staple them all to death? Mesmerize them with some Jackie Chan-like hoo-doo moves and staple them together while they were thus immobilized? The four officers had guns, batons, bullet-proof vests and pepper spray, but were alarmed by a 40-year-old clutching a stapler at his waist. Who knew office supplies could be so frightening? God knows what they'd done if he'd gone for a shredder.
Const. Millington told the inquiry he kept firing the Taser because he didn't think it was working right. He said it was making an odd sound. Apparently seeing Mr. Dziekanski scream, clutch his chest and fall to the ground wasn't enough to alleviate his concerns. He even adjusted the weapon to deliver a different sort of jolt, just to make sure.
How many times have Canadians heard police testify that they were forced to take aggressive action because of threatening action by a suspect, backing up the claim by reading from the notes they made at the scene? How many court cases have turned on judges accepting the validity of contemporaneous notes made by police, backed up by the corroboration of their colleagues at the scene? The Dziekanski hearing suggests such “evidence” is no more valid than the claims of a shoplifter, caught with a toaster oven in his back seat, that “someone must have put it there.”
Without the video evidence in this case we'd still think Robert Dziekanski was some kind of violent and unstable brute, throwing around furniture and smashing windows, who had to be subdued by four RCMP officers at risk to their own safety. His death would be written off as the tragic result of his own unfathomable actions, just as was obviously intended by the Mounties' tale. It's not even remotely true, and the next time a police officer takes the stand backed solely by his notes and his own testimony, it will have to be called sharply into question. Thanks to the RCMP and their role in the death of Robert Dziekanski.