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Friday, April 24, 2009

Taser inquiry leaves RCMP image in tatters

April 24, 2009
By Don Martin, Calgary Herald

The retired police officer thought he'd seen the worst possible case of cop rot when he helped drag an RCMP commissioner before Parliament to face coverup perjury accusations.

But what's surfacing daily on the witness stand at the Braidwood Inquiry into the Taser-triggered death of Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski has even Ron Lewis mortified at the reputation ruination of Canada's iconic police force.

In performing its duty to document the truth internally, properly brief the public externally and testify to the facts accurately, this inquiry has become a nightmarish example of a force that is not always with us.

Lewis spent 35 years with the RCMP, including time on Pierre Trudeau's prime ministerial security detail, followed by riot squad, intelligence gathering and remote patrolling duties.

But it was his whistle-blower role in exposing RCMP pension plan irregularities that ultimately brought Commissioner Giuliano Zaccardelli before MPs for a performance which, coupled with his erratic testimony on the Maher Arar file, cut short his career as Canada's top police officer in late 2006.

Lewis has documented his battle in a just-released book, This Is Not the RCMP I Joined, a detailed account of his fight against an RCMP boardroom more concerned with protecting its squeaky clean, red serge Mountie image than doing the right thing in law enforcement.

He admits the force got a black eye from a prolonged pension scandal featuring nepotism, contract irregularities and a blind-eye refusal by senior officers to enforce the rules.

But the parade of fibbing Vancouver airport officers who zapped a confused and unarmed immigrant five times, restraining him on the floor until he died while a civilian's video camera rolled from the far side of the glass, is now giving way to evidence of a higher-level communications whitewash where critical information was ignored, suppressed or manipulated.

In vintage Watergatish style, the coverup is becoming worse than the crime.

"The investigators must've known immediately they had a huge problem, but didn't handle it well out of a sense of self-preservation," Lewis told me. "Now they're locked on a global stage and they can't get off. This is not a localized event people will easily forget. It's going to take a generation for a lot of this to go away."

It's not that Lewis has qualms about Taser use. When he applied to join the force on his 18th birthday, electrical zapper guns were only found in science fiction comic books. His usual method of taking down an unruly suspect was to apply a now-banned choke hold or whack the offender with a force-issued flashlight that usually lost its bottom and sent batteries flying. The Taser is far safer and easier, he says.

But the problem for the force goes beyond using excessive force against a frightened immigrant trapped alone in a situation he could not comprehend and waving around a stapler for protection.

While it falls far short of a justification, there's a plausible explanation for their bizarre, heavy-handed response.

Talk to RCMP and they'll confide that airport duty is a dog job where long boring days are spent serving as armed security guards, directing passengers to the nearest washroom or giving them directions downtown.

When excitement surfaces, there's an adrenalin-pumped tendency to overreact. In this case, this exuberance was compounded by the failure of the two-pronged Taser darts to properly connect with Dziekanski's torso, which may explain the multiple jolts fired by the weapon.

But nothing explains why officers acutely aware they had been captured as stars of riveting video footage would together craft and stick with a bogus script that conflicted with the pictures. And nothing justifies police communicators hired as an accurate source of public information to deliberately allow obvious nose-stretchers to rage as police facts for more than a year.

The pension plan fiasco was confined to the top level of the police force. This inquiry-probing incident started at the lowest level of policing, but is now creeping up the chain of command.

If the two RCMP apologies this week aren't backed by fresh evidence to exonerate the officer's lethal response to the hapless Dziekanski, the RCMP will need more than boosted manpower and better weapons to do their job properly in the public eye.

Perhaps the automatic videotaping of every arrest is needed to help keep their memories and the facts in sync.

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