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Sunday, May 24, 2009

Inquiry draws to a close but Dziekanski's death still stirring debate

May 24, 2009
By James Keller – 13 hours ago

VANCOUVER, B.C. — Four years before he came to Canada from Poland, Robert Dziekanski received a photograph in the mail from his mother.

Zofia Cisowski was posing with members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, on horseback, as she celebrated her new citizenship.

"I was so happy, smiling," says Cisowski from her home in Kamloops, B.C.

"He knows about Canada, even small things, especially about RCMP, about the government."

Dziekanski, 40, encountered this iconic symbol of Canada soon after he landed at Vancouver's airport, but the contrast couldn't have been more stark: a fatal confrontation on Oct. 14, 2007, that has tarnished the image of the RCMP and led the public to question their national police force.

A lengthy public inquiry finishes hearing testimony this week, with closing arguments in June, but Canadians already know the tragic ending, caught on an amateur video that has become a staple of suppertime newscasts.

A table thrown against a window.

The arrival of four Mounties.

The crack of the Taser.

His chilling screams.

A struggle, and more jolts of electricity.

And then Dziekanski lying lifeless on the floor, his hands cuffed behind his back.

The second phase of a public inquiry - another last year broadly examined Taser use - has heard from more than 80 witnesses during the past four months touching on every agency that had contact with Dziekanski as he arrived to start a new life in Canada.

But it is the RCMP and their use of the Taser that have been under the most scrutiny in the wake of Dziekanski's death.

The Mounties have tried to paint Dziekanski as a distraught recovering alcoholic who was violent when police arrived, bringing the first Taser jolt on himself by trying to attack them.

The four officers each told the inquiry they tried to calm down the man, but he came at them with a stapler. They repeatedly stunned him on the ground because, they said, he was fighting back.

Much of that picture was disputed by the infamous video and again by other witnesses at the hearings, who described a man more scared than violent.

And perhaps most troubling for Canadians is the force's repeated insistence that the officers did nothing wrong and their steadfast defence of the controversial weapon at the centre of it all.

Cisowski has long demanded an apology, but now she is asking for more: she wants prosecutors to reconsider their decision not to charge the officers and says the Mounties need to get rid of their Tasers.

"I'm sick of hearing anymore about police Tasering somebody," says Cisowski, who has travelled between Kamloops and Vancouver to watch much of the inquiry.

"The Taser is not a safe weapon at all."

For its part, the RCMP has apologized for Dziekanski's death, saying more emphasis must be placed on calming down distraught people, and it readily acknowledges the profound challenges ahead to rebuild public trust.

A steady stream of letters to the editor still fills editorial pages and comments below online news stories continue to stretch on for pages.

A poll for The Canadian Press in March found nearly two-thirds of respondents felt the officers used excessive force, and more than a third said it decreased their confidence in the Mounties.

"The more they tried to stick to their party line, the more they tried to obfuscate, the worse it got," says Lindsay Meredith, a marketing professor at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C.

"It's a situation where you've gone so far down the road now, it's tougher and tougher to get out of this, and it will not go away."

While the assessment of the officers' actions will be the most anticipated finding of retired judge Thomas Braidwood's final report, his focus will be much broader.

Braidwood will write about the Canada Border Services Agency and its officers, who failed to notice Dziekanski waiting for hours in a secure customs hall and never called a translator when he finally surfaced. Everyone who dealt with him knew he didn't speak any English.

He will write about Dziekanski's mother, in a public waiting area, frantically trying to find information about her son.

There are the airport staff who told Cisowski that privacy laws prevented them from telling her anything about her son, a refrain repeated by the immigration officer who sent her driving back to Kamloops.

The airport supervisors who broke protocol by not calling the facility's own firefighters or fetch an automatic defibrillator that was just a short walk away.

Braidwood must assess whether the officers or anyone else was monitoring Dziekanski's medical condition after the Taser was used. Several witnesses disagreed over how much this happened, if at all.

He will also have to sort through widely varying medical opinions about what killed Dziekanski.

Independent experts have suggested the Taser likely played a role in stopping Dziekanski's heart, adding to the man's stress and triggering a fatal heart arrhythmia. Experts paid by the weapon's manufacturer, however, insists there's no way the weapon could have played any part in the man's death.

Even when the report is public - one of the inquiry's lawyers says Braidwood wants to finish the report by the fall - Dziekanski's story won't be over.

Other investigations are still to come, including a review by the complaints commissioner for the RCMP.

And the lawyer for Dziekanski's mother has suggested a lawsuit could follow.

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