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Monday, April 20, 2009

EDITORIAL: A recipe for police abuses

April 20, 2009
Winnipeg Free Press

CANADIANS gained useful insight last week into why the RCMP officers were cleared by an outside review for their actions at the Vancouver airport the day Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski was Tasered multiple times. Despite evidence the RCMP used excessive force, resulting in the man’s death, the officer who analysed their actions told an inquiry Thursday the force used was reasonable. That officer is wrong.

Canadians know this by now, having watched a bystander video of the RCMP’s encounter with Mr. Dziekanski Oct. 14, 2007. Some of those four officers have conceded at the inquiry that their accounts, recorded in notes, of Mr. Dziekanski’s actions at the airport were wrong.

That did not dissuade Sgt. Brad Fawcett of the Vancouver Police Department from sticking to his report's conclusions, rationalizing the use of force at the inquiry into Mr. Dziekanski's death. Sgt. Fawcett said the RCMP perceived they were under threat, that Mr. Dziekanski was combative and, under those conditions, acted reasonably when they discharged a Taser five times.

The traveller, who was lost in the airport for 10 hours, was agitated and threw furniture, but when the RCMP arrived, Mr. Dziekanski was not combative. In fact, he turned away from them, picked up a stapler and then faced them again. The officers said he raised the stapler and moved toward them combatively, but the video showed otherwise. They said, fearing for their safety, they had to wrestle him to the ground after he was Tasered once -- in fact, he flailed for a few seconds and then collapsed on the ground. The officers jumped on him, as he was still screaming, and tried to cuff him, at which point Mr. Dziekanski was Tasered again repeatedly.

Canadians have been shocked that a non-combative man with a harmless office tool was levelled by such force, with little effort made by police to understand the circumstances. Sgt. Fawcett himself said he would have reacted differently. But, he said, those officers reacted according to their perceptions of what was unfolding in front of them.

Sgt. Fawcett's report showed that he had to ignore the evidence to rationalize the inaccurate versions of events told by the RCMP -- saying the video supported their stories, when it didn't and then discounting as "minor in nature" the contradiction between the officers' account that Mr. Dziekanski had to be wrestled to the ground and the video that showed he collapsed.

Sgt. Fawcett ignored the obvious need for officers to explain their actions, and their perceptions, in the context of the facts of an event, of the circumstances in front of them, to justify their use of force. In the absence of that, reasonable becomes arbitrary and any use of force can be justified. That is not the kind of authority any officer should have.

Sgt. Fawcett's conclusions are insupportable and his weak attempts to paint the RCMP officers' actions as reasonable do them a disservice.

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