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Monday, June 21, 2010

EDITORIAL: A taser, a stapler, and the death of Robert Dziekanski

June 19, 2010
Globe and Mail

With a 50,000-volt taser at the ready, the Mounties forgot the power of moral authority and persuasion, in the death of the Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski in British Columbia. They forgot their history and their pride. They forgot their uniform.

And afterward, they told fibs about what happened. He was violently resisting, they said. (Ridiculous, as anyone can see on the videotape.) There were just two taser blasts. (No, five.)

And for more than a year, they chose not to correct those fibs.

The killing of Mr. Dziekanski is thus an archetypal lesson, not only for the RCMP but for all police forces in Canada, in the dangers of high-tech weaponry.

Thomas Braidwood, who chaired an inquiry into Mr. Dziekanski's death, is a wise man. Police forces around Canada would do well to mark his words down where all can see them. “I can't help but think if the taser was not there they perhaps would have reverted to their former skills,” the retired B.C. appeal-court judge said on Friday, of the four officers whose shameful and needless reliance on brute force ended Mr. Dziekanski's life at the Vancouver International Airport on Oct. 14, 2007. “When the conducted energy weapon [the taser] was not available, you had one RCMP officer police a whole community without any problem, using the skills they had been taught.”

The national police force has a mythic dimension precisely because of those skills, as exemplified by the courage and authority of an unarmed Major James Walsh of the North-West Mounted Police, the forerunner of the RCMP, striding up to meet with Sitting Bull and his warriors in 1876, fresh from their bloody victory over George Custer at the Battle of Little Bighorn. Major Walsh had no taser. Then again, Sitting Bull had no office stapler.

Mr. Braidwood definitively rejected the claim by the Mounties who killed Mr. Dziekanski that he was out of control. In fact, he was “calm and co-operative” when the officers approached. It was they, he said, who treated the event as if it were a barroom brawl, even when it became apparent that he was a distraught traveller. Their stories were “patently unbelievable.” They did not “honestly perceive” a threat from Mr. Dziekanski, who held a stapler but never brandished it.

The truth came out because a bystander's videotape caught it all. Here was the supposedly risk-free taser being wielded by Mounties on a harmless man who had spent 10 hours looking for his mother. “I've always said the most important weapon in the arsenal of the police force is public support,” Mr. Braidwood said. “They are peace officers. That's the essence of their mandate.” When police forget what it is that gives them moral authority, and how to use it, they are at risk of losing that most important weapon of all, public support.

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