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Friday, September 25, 2009

My mea culpa

September 25, 2009
Lorne Gunter, National Post

I apologize for sticking up for the Mounties who Tasered Robert Dziekanski at Vancouver International Airport in October 2007. He died soon after. More than that, I am sorry for suggesting in print that Mr. Dziekanski and his mother, Zofia Cisowski, had some culpability in his death; he for acting bizarrely, she for failing to do more to locate her son before he went berserk after waiting mistakenly for hours in a Canada Customs office in the terminal.

I still believe Mr. Dziekanski's behaviour was inappropriate and disturbing. But he did not deserve to die. And he died because police officers forgot their training and obligation to the public, acted excessively and in haste, may have killed an innocent, if disturbed, man in the process.

As guardians of the peace, they failed, just as I failed as a journalist by standing by them too long.

The Braidwood inquiry into the incident is ongoing in Vancouver, so it remains too early to come to some conclusions about the officers' actions and about the behaviour of their superiors following the event. But what we have learned so far has made a few very important conclusions unavoidable: The four officers on the scene overreacted to the situation before them. An innocent man died as a result of their misjudgment and excessive use of force. And ever since, their superiors have been attempting to cover up their blameworthiness.

This latter transgression -- the attempt by the brass to keep the truth from coming out -- is the greatest problem now plaguing our once-proud national police force. It speaks to the institutional rot and corrosive culture at the upper echelons of the RCMP.

I am not doubting that the Dziekanski call-out, coming after 1:00 in the morning, was no routine episode. The dispatcher had told the quartet of officers to expect an "intoxicated male throwing luggage around" and "throwing chairs through [a] glass window." He was cursing, throwing furniture, erecting a barricade and swinging a small table at a civilian who approached him to see whether they might help.

Witnesses in the airport at the time sided with the officers, although many have since recanted their original statements in front of the inquiry. Mr. Dziekanski "deserved the Taser," they told investigators, and police "had no choice" because he was "out of control."

Still, the officers acted far too quickly in Tasering the Polish traveller. They made almost none of the standard peaceful approaches they are trained to make and escalated instead almost instantly to the conducted energy weapon.

Their after-incident reports at the time disagree with the video evidence and, more damagingly, with their sworn statements to the Braidwood commission. They each claimed Mr. Dziekanski refused to co-operate with them, although the video evidence seems to indicate he, being a non-speaker of English, was complying the best he could with commands they gave by gesture. And while they insisted he became "combative," picked up a stapler to use as a weapon and lunged at them, none of that is supported in the video recordings.

More damning for me was what the officers told paramedics on the scene. While the officers had jolted Mr. Dziekanski five times with their Taser, they informed paramedics they had stunned the blue-faced, convulsive, breathless victim only once, a possible sign that even then they knew they had done something wrong and were preparing a common cover story.

But worst of all is the way senior Mounties have done all they can to keep the bright light of public scrutiny from shining on the Dziekanski death. Their initial response to the incident was less than frank. They tried to block a comprehensive video taken at the scene from being made public. They resisted an inquiry, whitewashed their own findings and, as we learned this week, kept 18,000 documents -- some highly damaging -- from being seen by the formal inquiry and from the public.

Senior Mounties who helped perpetrate a cover-up should be sacked. Likely the four officers should be fired, too, although Canadians might want to wait for the Braidwood report before urging that. And the RCMP itself should apologize formally for its role in all this.

Next the force needs to be remade from top to bottom, stressing its responsibility and rectitude.

Only then will it have any chance of repairing its tarnished reputation.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Mr. Gunter missed one very obvious set of contributors to the death of Mr. Dziekanski: Taser International, their minions, and their unwashed masses of fan-boys and apologists.

These folks, ranging from pure evil to pure stupid, state that the X26 taser cannot possibly cause death via any inherent internal risk factors such as cardiac effects. But they're wrong.

Inquiry after inquiry has concluded that tasers can cause death, directly or indirectly, via any of several mechanisms, even in healthy adults. Tasers are a form of torture that can kill.

The too-hasty use of tasers, their overuse, misuse, and abuse stems DIRECTLY from the lies about taser safety. Once everyone realizes that tasers can kill, the problem (mostly) solves itself. That's already started in Canada.

The root of the problem, them evil lie from which all the evil stems, is the lie about how "tasers cannot kill."