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Thursday, March 26, 2009

Walking a mile in the wrong shoes

March 26, 2009
Globe and Mail

RCMP Commissioner William Elliott wants Canadians to "walk a mile in my shoes" - a Mountie's brown boots - before judging the organization or its people in the fatal tasering of the Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski at the Vancouver International Airport. But the RCMP is not the victim here, and it will not regain Canadians' confidence by acting like one.

Mr. Elliott's comment is egregious and insulting because he asks for his organization what he does not ask of it - that it walk a mile in the shoes of an unarmed immigrant who did not speak English or French, and who had been waiting for his mother for 10 hours. Never mind a mile. The Mounties never took the first step. They began tasering Mr. Dziekanski, about whom they knew nothing, and never asked, within 30 seconds of approaching him.

Mr. Elliott asks for empathy, but why should Canadians ignore incompetence and unprofessionalism? Everything that has emerged from the four officers involved, in testimony at a judicial inquiry in British Columbia, underscores the organization's failure to train its officers properly. Corporal Benjamin Monty Robinson, the most senior of the four, had let his first-aid training lapse five years earlier. No wonder he failed to recognize or address Mr. Dziekanski's distress. Cpl. Robinson's taser training occurred in 2003 and he hadn't had a refresher course. No wonder Mr. Dziekanski was tasered five times, though he never got up after the first one. Why isn't the RCMP training its people properly?

The amateur video of the RCMP's fatal confrontation with Mr. Dziekanski should be used as a teaching tool at every police college in the country: This is what not to do.

Lesson one might be that the police, not the unarmed subject, are in control. The RCMP is on the verge of making itself a laughingstock because the four officers testified about how threatened they felt when Mr. Dziekanski picked up a stapler. (The officers had all said initially that Mr. Dziekanski had swung the stapler. He hadn't.) Canada's finest, having tamed the West quite peacefully, are now a-quiver at being collated. These officers had options. They could have backed off. Mr. Dziekanski was in a secure area. Time was on the officers' side.

But in their view, Mr. Dziekanski was in control. "He didn't afford us the opportunity" to give a warning, said Cpl. Robinson. Yet everything that happened was brought on by those officers. It was their aggressive approach - four armed police moving in as a pack, right up close, and spreading around him - that caused the confused, frightened man to pick up the stapler. Relaxing and backing off a few steps could have worked wonders. What a teachable moment for all police everywhere.

It is clear to nearly everyone in Canada except the RCMP that the tasering was unnecessary, brutal and a national embarrassment. It is equally clear that the RCMP, in its official statements and in the initial statements of the four officers, told rank falsehoods. Their training and judgment were simply not up to the task. On the positive side, Mr. Elliott said last month that his force has changed its taser policy to reflect a risk of death. He seems now to be speaking out of both sides of his mouth.

Mr. Elliott, a career civil servant, was made commissioner at a low point for the RCMP two years ago. His job was to fix a "horribly broken" agency. Yet it seems from his latest comments the RCMP is determined to learn nothing from the death of Mr. Dziekanski. The impression he leaves is that the organization is still horribly broken.

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