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Tuesday, April 06, 2010

EDITORIAL: Public should know full extent of Dziekanski payout

April 6, 2010
Vancouver Sun

Zofia Cisowski suffered a terrible loss when her son, Robert Dziekanski, was Tasered by RCMP officers at the Vancouver airport in 2007.

Her grief was compounded by suggestions from the RCMP and lawyers representing individual officers that her son was responsible for his own death.

Fortunately, the incident was filmed by a witness. The public release of that now famous video set an entirely different context for the story that emerged in the following weeks and created irresistible pressure to call a public inquiry into his death.

What we have learned so far is that Dziekanski should not have died at the airport that night. He was misunderstood and mistreated.

Part of the fallout from all of this is new guidelines for the use of Tasers and the recent commitment from the RCMP to no longer investigate itself in the case of serious injuries or deaths of suspects.

These changes should lead to better policing in Canada, but will not bring back Cisowski's son or compensate her -- as much as anyone can be compensated for losing a son -- for her loss.

The people most responsible for Dziekanski's death worked for us. They serve the public and they are paid by taxpayers.

So it is fair and just that taxpayers will pay the cost of the settlement announced last week in Cisowski's suit against the RCMP, the four officers involved, the Canada Border Services Agency and the Vancouver Airport Authority. Our agents were responsible for her grief so we are ultimately responsible for the financial consequences of their actions.

We are glad to see that a settlement was reached without the need for a costly trial, which could have increased the costs to taxpayers and dragged out the ordeal for Cisowski.

Unfortunately, one of the terms of the out-of-court settlement is now an infringement to the right of taxpayers to know how their money is being spent and an impediment to our ability to hold our officials accountable for their actions.

All we have been told about the settlement is that it includes $20,000 to start a scholarship in Dziekanski's name at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops and a commitment from the RCMP to participate in independent research on Tasers.

Confidentiality provisions are often part of out-of-court settlements. Companies being sued may be concerned about admitting liability or encouraging subsequent lawsuits. Plaintiffs agree to keep the terms confidential because of the compensating benefit of not having to face the risks and costs of a trial.

There may be similar concerns when the defendant in a lawsuit is a public corporation, a government agency or a municipal, provincial or federal government. But when the defendant in a lawsuit represents the public, we have a stake in both sides of the dispute.

We have to be concerned not just with winning but with ensuring that our fellow citizens are being treated fairly.

So we need to know what the settlement includes, in part so we can see how much our agents have cost us with their behaviour, but also so we can satisfy ourselves that the settlement is just.

In this case, news reports suggest that Cisowski asked for the confidentiality clause.

We naturally sympathize with her desire for privacy given all that she has been through. However, she chose to sue in a judicial process that is inherently public.

So the public interest is best served by airing all of the issues raised, including the financial terms of the settlement.

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