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Sunday, October 04, 2009

RCMP, airport, customs under scrutiny as final arguments at Taser inquiry begin

October 4, 2009
By James Keller, Canadian Press

VANCOUVER, B.C. — The story of Robert Dziekanski's final hours, spent in Vancouver's airport after a long flight from Poland and unable to speak to anyone around him, has many characters.

There are, of course, the four Mounties who were called to the international terminal early one morning in October 2007 after Dziekanski started throwing furniture.

Seconds later, one of them fired his Taser. And minutes after that, the Polish man was dead.

But the list of players includes many others - airport staff, customs officers, firefighters, paramedics and the Taser itself - and all of them will be under scrutiny as lawyers present their final arguments this week at a public inquiry.

The lawyer representing Dziekanski's mother will start his final submissions on Monday, and while Walter Kosteckyj will have plenty to say about the RCMP, he says there's lots of blame to go around.

"The overview of what I'm going to talk about are all the opportunities that were lost to deal with Mr. Dziekanski right from the get-go," Kosteckyj said in an interview.

"The RCMP were the last ones to show up, and they certainly bear a lot of responsibility, but . . . it's just systematic failure."

Dziekanski is the central figure of this story, a Polish construction worker who didn't speak English moving to Canada to start a new life with his mother, Zofia Cisowski.

Cisowski is another, coming to the airport to pick up her son and waiting for hours. She was eventually told he wasn't there, and she drove home to Kamloops, B.C.

The four RCMP officers have also become main characters - and critics would say the antagonists - after stunning Dziekanski several times with a Taser within seconds of arriving at the scene.

The officers said Dziekanski was threatening them with a stapler; others have accused them during the inquiry of lying to cover up their actions.

Their lawyers will argue this week that they were simply doing their jobs, albeit with deadly consequences. They were not charged.

"The officers acted in accordance with their training," said Ravi Hira, who represents the officer who fired the Taser.

"It's a tragic outcome, but the evidence is clear in that regard."

However, a large supporting cast fills the space before and after the officers' arrival.

Customs officers failed to notice Dziekanski as he sat for hours in a secure customs hall, and never called a translator when he finally emerged. It was a customs officer, as well, who advised Dziekanski's mother to leave.

That was after airport staff told Cisowski they couldn't tell her anything about her son because of privacy laws.

Once the Taser was used, airport supervisors broke protocol by not calling the facility's own firefighters or bringing an automatic defibrillator to the scene after Dziekanski was stunned.

Firefighters raised doubts about whether the officers or anyone else monitored Dziekanski's condition after he collapsed on the floor. And others raised questions about the firefighters' performance.

Then there is the Taser, the controversial stun gun that has been the subject of fierce debate since Dziekanski's fatal confrontation with police, and the conflicting medical evidence about whether it played a role in the man's death.

There were many witnesses, members of the public who found themselves at the airport that morning, including one who shot a video of the confrontation that has been played countless times around the world.

Over the next week, lawyers for all of the parties involved will each have a chance to tell their version of that story to commissioner Thomas Braidwood.

After that, Braidwood will decide where the truth lies and make recommendations to prevent future tragedies.

"It's been a long case," said Art Vertlieb, a lawyer for the inquiry.

"To be sure to know what the key issues are is always a challenge, to avoid getting lost in the woods."

It's been almost two years to the day since Dziekanski's death - the second anniversary is next week - but the story is not over yet.

Braidwood's final report is likely months away, and there are still other proceedings related to the inquiry.

Three of the officers are asking the B.C. Court of Appeal to bar the commissioner from alleging misconduct against them. The B.C. Supreme Court rejected their case earlier this year.

And Taser International is challenging the report from the first phase of Braidwood's inquiry, held last year and broadly examining Taser use in B.C. In his report, Braidwood concluded Tasers can kill.

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