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Sunday, October 18, 2009

Ottawa spends more than half a million to defend RCMP, officers at Taser inquiry

October 18, 2009
James Keller (CP)

VANCOUVER, B.C. — The federal government spent more than half a million dollars defending the RCMP and the actions of the four officers who stunned Robert Dziekanski with a Taser at Vancouver's airport.

The force and each of the four officers had lawyers at the public inquiry into Dziekanski's death, which began in January and finished with closing submissions last week.

The Polish immigrant's fatal confrontation with police on Oct. 14, 2007, has been a source of intense criticism for the RCMP and the four officers and for police use of Tasers, fuelled in large part by an infamous amateur video of the incident.

The Justice Department had billed the RCMP more than $373,000 in legal fees to represent the force at the inquiry as of July 31, according to documents obtained under federal access to information laws.

Lawyers for the officers had together cost the RCMP about $200,000 by the end of August, according to the documents.

Those figures were tallied during a three-month summer break, which was ordered in June to investigate an internal RCMP email that raised questions about the officers' testimony. Since then, there have been several days of hearings in September and final submissions this month.

And lawyers for three of the officers are heading to the B.C. Court of Appeal in December to challenge the inquiry's authority to make findings of misconduct against them.

The RCMP and the four Mounties were named in a lawsuit filed by Dziekanski's mother earlier this month, although it's not clear who will pay the officers' legal fees in that case.

The officers' lawyers were hired just days before the inquiry was set to begin in January, and the inquiry has taken far longer than anticipated. Initially, the hearings were expected to be finished by the spring.

Ravi Hira, who represents Const. Kwesi Millington, the Mountie who fired the Taser, said it wasn't his place to comment on the RCMP's decision to pay the officers' legal fees.

"In terms of cost, you have seen the length of the inquiry, you know the amount of time that we're talking about here," said Hira.

The RCMP couldn't be reached for comment.

The force has always stood firmly behind the actions of the officers, and that position has been reflected at the inquiry.

In its written final submissions, handed over to the inquiry two weeks ago, the federal government maintains the officers used an "acceptable" level of force that was consistent with RCMP policies and training.

Walter Kosteckyj, who represents Dziekanski's mother at the inquiry and in her recently filed lawsuit, said regardless of his criticisms of the officers, it's important to ensure they've been adequately represented at the hearings.

"I would be a hypocrite to say they're not entitled to be properly defended," Kosteckyj said in a recent interview.

"And no one can say they didn't get the best legal help necessary, no one can come back and say these guys were railroaded or weren't treated fairly. That's important to the process."

The B.C. government ordered a two-phase public inquiry a month after Dziekanski died.

Commissioner Thomas Braidwood held the first part last year, broadly examining Taser use by law enforcement agencies in British Columbia. He released a report from that phase during the summer, concluding Tasers can kill but are a necessary tool for police.

The second phase, examining Dziekanski's death in detail, has now wrapped up and Braidwood's final report is expected to be made public next year.

By August, the provincial government had spent $3.99 million since the first phase began, said Leo Perra, executive director for the commission. That total could increase by another million by the time the commission's work is finished, he said.

Perra said most of that cost goes to salaries, including Braidwood - who is paid about $1,700 a day - the inquiry's own lawyers and support staff. That money also pays for facility costs.

"Commissions of inquiry aren't particularly provided with a budget, because nobody knows where they're going and exactly what's going to happen," said Perra.

Kosteckyj said it's been money well spent.

"Every once in a while we have to shine a light on the things that are bothering us and the things that don't seem right, and here, we put this under a microscope," he said.

"People have to know that in certain circumstances, when you're involved in things, there is going to be full scrutiny and this makes everybody better."

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