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Saturday, April 11, 2009

Police wince at media spotlight as they push for more surveillance cameras

April 11, 2009
The Canadian Press

VANCOUVER, B.C. — Police routinely call the media together for a show-and-tell display of video or pictures of the latest brazen criminal act, but lately, a similar spotlight has been shining on police and the picture isn't pretty.

A Vancouver news photographer summed it up as the "Robert Dziekanski syndrome" after police twisted his arm behind his back and seized his camera as he tried to take shots of a police-involved shooting.

Dziekanski, a Polish immigrant who was behaving erratically, died at Vancouver's airport after RCMP Tasered him several times in October 2007.

The death went mostly unnoticed until it exploded onto the national stage after a bystander's video of the incident showed officers using the weapon on the agitated man armed only with a stapler. A public inquiry which has been further embarrassing to the RCMP is currently underway.

Since Dziekanski's death, New Brunswick police have been chastised by a court for not only arresting a blog photographer, but deleting a picture from his camera.
In December 2007, just weeks after the Dziekanski video was released to the public, Vancouver television cameraman Ricky Tong arrived to the scene of a police-involved shooting minutes after the gunfire and started filming.

He was held after refusing to give up his video and only released after the station sent a live truck to the site so a copy of the video could be made on the spot.
After a fatal police shooting on the street last month, Adam Smolcic, told a Vancouver officer he had taped the incident on his cell phone.

He said he gave the officer his phone and when it was returned, the video had been erased. The phone is now with experts in the United States to see if the video can be extracted from the phone's memory.

Vancouver Police Chief Jim Chu has apologized to both Payne and Tong.

"My personal feeling is this is the Robert Dziekanski syndrome," said Payne, a news photographer for more than a decade.

"If that person hadn't of videotaped what happened in Vancouver airport the inquiry probably wouldn't be going on."

Payne said he was threatened with arrest. "And I really thought they were going to do it."

The Vancouver incidents have prompted a formal complaint from the B.C. Civil Liberties Association to the Vancouver Police Board.

Chu has admitted police held on to the photographer's camera an hour longer than they should have.

"The officers were acting in good faith, they were acting in the heat of the moment," he said.

This comes at the same time as the City of Vancouver considers beefing up it's surveillance during the 2010 Winter Olympics with street cameras and the B.C. government invests $1.8 million to put video systems in police cars.

It's an irony not lost on David Eby, of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association.

"It's almost like the police only want the cameras turned in one direction. That is on the citizens and not on the police," said Eby.

"But the reality of cellphone cameras and surveillance cameras is that they capture everybody equally."

No one, including police, should have the expectation of privacy in a public place, said Simon Fraser University criminologist Neil Boyd.

He agreed it appears recent police actions indicate they're concerned about public perception.

"Whether this is true or not is a question - but the images do suggest that they're more interested in how police are portrayed than using this material in the course of a police investigation," said Boyd.

After his apology, Chu denied that was the goal of his officers.

"If you want to go on YouTube and search Vancouver Police there's tremendous amounts of video footage and we know that. We're not out there trying to stop people from doing that at all."

The department also sent out a bulletin warning officers they can't take cameras or video equipment from members of the public or the media. It says officers can only take equipment in the instances where there is an arrest, a warrant, or officers have a reasonable concern that the person might destroy the evidence.

Eby said police often use the potential destruction of evidence as an excuse to seize the tape.

"The issue is control of the videotape and who gets to see it and more importantly who doesn't get to see it."

He said he can't think of a member of the public who would videotape a police-involved death and then erase it.

"More likely they would sell it to a media outlet or they would put it up on YouTube. The concern that the police have is that the videotape would be distributed and there would be people criticizing their conduct," he said.

Eby said it was no coincidence that the conflicts between police and media concerned police-involved shootings.

"I think the Dziekanski video really drives home the sensitivity that police have around these things."

All four officers involved in the Taser incident told the inquiry into Dziekanski's death that the man was aggressive and waving a stapler when they arrived on the scene and that the officers had to wrestle him to the airport floor.

All the officers later admitted after watching the video during the inquiry that those statements were incorrect.

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