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Wednesday, May 06, 2009

RCMP 'rarely have facts straight early on,' Taser inquiry hears

May 6, 2009
By Neal Hall, Vancouver Sun

VANCOUVER — The former commanding officer in charge of investigating the death of Robert Dziekanski at the Vancouver International Airport on Wednesday defended the decision not to correct misinformation given to the media for 14 months.

"My belief at the time is we needed to protect the facts we were gathering," RCMP Supt. Wayne Rideout told the Braidwood inquiry, which is probing the Polish immigrant's death on Oct. 14, 2007, after he was Tasered five times.

Rideout said it was his decision not to release any further facts about the case, even though an RCMP media relations officer initially released inaccurate information about the fatal incident.

The inquiry heard earlier that Sgt. Pierre Lemaitre, who was the senior media relations officer for the RCMP in 2007, initially told the media that Dziekanski was Tasered twice, was combative and had to be wrested to the ground at the airport.

Lemaitre later learned that the Taser was deployed five times, that four officers were involved in the incident and none of the Mounties had to wrestle Dziekanski to the ground because he fell after the first Taser shot.

Lemaitre testified that he got the information from Cpl. Dale Carr during a police briefing hours after Dziekanski died.

Lemaitre said he thought the misinformation would be corrected by Carr, who took over media relations for the incident on Oct. 31, 2007.

Carr was media relations officer for the Integrated Homicide Investigation Team, which was investigating the sudden death.

Rideout said too much information was initially released about the incident.

"We rarely have our facts straight early on," he explained.

Rideout, then the team commander of the investigation, said he didn't want to correct the wrong information until all the facts were established and all witnesses had been interviewed.

He also recalled he didn't want a citizen's amateur video of the incident, which was seized by police, released because he thought it would taint the memories of witnesses who were at the airport that night.

"What I was after was their true memory of the event," Rideout told inquiry commissioner Thomas Braidwood, a retired judge.

But under cross-examination, lawyer Walter Kosteckyj, representing Dziekanski's mother, suggested Rideout was in a conflict of interest when he approved a further media release of facts in November 2007 to let the public know Dziekanski still had a pulse and was breathing after he was Tasered and handcuffed.

"The decision with respect to that release was mine," Rideout recalled.

Kosteckyj questioned why the commander chose to release more facts but not correct previous misinformation.

Rideout said all the facts had been gathered regarding the monitoring of Dziekanski's vital signs but not whether the Taser was a factor in the in-custody fatality.

"One was stable information in our investigation and the other was still fluid," he added.

Lawyer Don Rosenbloom suggested Rideout chose to violate his "cease order" not to release any more information about the incident "when it was self-serving to your interests."

The Mountie disagreed. "I do not believe the release was self-serving to our interests."

Rosenbloom also pointed out the RCMP media release did not mention there was contradictory evidence from a Richmond fire department captain, who told police that when firefighters arrived on the scene, no one was monitoring Dziekanski.

Rideout said the contradictory witness statement did not belong in the news release.

"Isn't the truth less prejudicial than to leave untruths out in the public?" the lawyer asked.

"The truth is the goal," Rideout replied.

In hindsight, he added, police should have told the media that errors of fact had been released but police could not discuss at that time what the errors were.

The inquiry has heard that Dziekanski, 40, had left his home in Poland more than 24 hours earlier and had come to Canada to live with his mother, Zofia Cisowski. But they never connected at the airport. Dziekanski stayed in a secure area of the airport, not accessible to the public, for about nine hours. He eventually became agitated and began throwing furniture around, prompting a 911 call. Four RCMP officers arrived and began trying to communicate with Dziekanski, who spoke no English. When police gave him conflicting commands, Dziekanski grabbed a stapler from a counter, causing an officer to deploy the Taser.

Dziekanski died at the scene.

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