Thursday, November 15, 2007

Tasers and the lost trust in the RCMP

Most people who watched Robert Dziekanski's life end on the floor of the Vancouver airport felt horror.
But there was also anger, and a sense of trust betrayed. The actions of the RCMP that night - and in the days that followed - marked a turning point. It is hard to maintain trust in our national police force after such a dramatic failure.
The initial focus has been on the police use of Tasers. That is important. In the last four years, 18 Canadians have died after being electrocuted b the devices. Six of them, one-third of the total, have been in B.C.
The devices were introduced in the province in 1998. It seemed a great step forward. The promise was that the Taser would offer an alternative to the use of guns. Imagine being able incapacitate a crazed person waving an axe at police, instead of having to shoot to kill.
But the devices were introduced without a clear code for their use and only limited training. And it became clear that officers were using Tasers more freely and for a wider range of purposes, sometimes simply to get people to follow instructions quickly.
That was not the idea. And given the number of deaths associated with Taser use, it was a dangerous approach.
Part of the problem has been the reluctance of police to acknowledge any risk, despite the mounting toll of people who died within minutes of being Tasered.
The deaths prompted the province's Police Complaints Commissioner to launch a review, led by the Victoria police department. The report backed the use of the devices, but called for better training and stricter rules.
The devices should not be used unless people are actively resisting police, the report said. It's not enough that they're ignoring commands or gesturing wildly.
And even if they are actively resisting, the report said, unless police are being assaulted they should use the Taser as a stun gun, rather than firing the darts into the person. The difference is significant: As a stun gun the Taser is painful, but not incapacitating.
The report warned of the risk that excited delirium - a medical condition that can cause death - is associated with Taser use. And it cautioned that after being Tasered, people hog-tied and left lying on their front might be unable to breathe.
The province said it adopted the recommendations.
But the video of Dziekanski's death - along with the other reports - gives the lie to that claim.
It shows him pacing in the Vancouver airport. A Polish immigrant, he had been there 10 hours. His mother came to meet him, but couldn't find him.
Dziekanski looks agitated. He waves a chair around, pushes something on the floor. A woman appears on the video, moves close and tries to talk to him. She's not afraid. Security guards are looking on.
Then the four RCMP officers arrive. They don't hesitate or try to talk to Dziekanski. They don't confer on whether a translator is available. None of them tries to take his arm. He raises his hands. Moves away.
And they shoot him with the Taser. He screams, falls, gets shocked again and all four leap on top of him. In a short time, he stops moving. None of the officers tries CPR in the minutes captured on the video.
It's bad. But in some ways, what happened in the next few days was worse. The young Victoria man who shot the video voluntarily offered it to the RCMP; officers said they would make a copy and return it the next day. But then they refused to give it back. They would hold it until the investigations were over, they said, perhaps two years.
Meanwhile, the RCMP talked about a struggle in a crowded terminal. They said officers had tried to subdue Dziekanski.
But the terminal was deserted. They didn't try to talk to him. He didn't struggle. The RCMP description bore no resemblance to the scene on the video. It smacked of cover-up.
But the young man threatened to sue. He got the video back and - after sharing it with Dziekanski's mother - released it.
The video should bring immediate, strict controls on Taser use and an end to the current practice that sees the RCMP investigate itself in this type of case.
But nothing will bring Dzieskanski back, or restore the lost trust in Canada's national police force.


Anonymous said...

Public Security Minister Stockwell Day rejected demands for public hearings into Dziekanski's death, saying that while many Canadians might find the video disturbing, several investigations were already underway.

None of the following are REQUIRED
to be released to the public

Four investigations into the death of Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski are underway and a fifth has already been completed.

- Integrated Homicide Investigation Team (IHIT): Investigating the cause of death. This could lead to a criminal investigation and is expected to be completed before the end of this year.

- RCMP internal review: A review has been done to determine if the four officers involved in the incident acted punitively or outside their regular duties, Cpl. Greg Gillis said. No such finding was made and no further internal investigations will be conducted until judicial investigations are completed.

- The Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP: The commission works with the RCMP to determine the adequacy of the police response, as well as the adequacy of RCMP's investigation into the incident, commission spokesman Nelson Kalil said. The commission likely won't get fully involved in the review until an inquest is held, and an investigation into potential criminal charges has been completed.

- Coroner's inquest: Inquests are held when a person dies in police custody. The coroner's office aims to hold an inquest within 12 months of an incident, which means this one should be initiated before October 2008, coroner Jeff Dolan said. The inquest is to determine the classification of death -- accident, homicide or suicide -- and give recommendations to prevent similar situations from occurring. The length of the inquest depends on the number of witnesses to be called.

The coroner's office has already completed autopsy and toxicology reports.

- The Vancouver International Airport Authority: Review of procedures and protocols around security, translation services, responses to medical emergencies in the terminals, and methods for communicating with Canada Border Services Agency.

No timeline for completion has been set.

Kelly Sinoski, Vancouver Sun

Anonymous said...

Another great column. Thanks Mr. Willcocks. I sure appreciate reading your consistently good, fair and thoughtful commentary.

Anonymous said...

My gosh, it's too bad the cops can't seem to get their stories straight. The usual"I feared for my life" is absent this time as the guy was no big threat and worse, someoby took a film of the mess.4 suppposedly trained cops for some reason didn't even bother to talk to the guy or forecbly control him. It was so much easier to taser him a few times. The media cop even got the number of cops attending wrong. But I guess after years of dealing with strane people in court, they get very good at blaming others. I still can't get my head around a young cop killing a guy in the cop shop by shooting him in the back of the head while arguing later that the fellow was about to do him harm. That time the camera wasn't working, this time it was and those guys looked more like gang members that people whose signs on their cars say" Serve and protect" serve who, protect who. The RCMP has been caught a number of time since the bad old days when they used to just burn down barns dl

Anonymous said...

One aspect that I haven't seen covered by commentators or pundits is the reprecussions on the age old "tough on crime" approach politicians are so fond of using.
Does "getting tough on crime" mean murdering immigrants at the airport?
Or catching the "murder of innocents" in a Surrey high-rise?

Does "getting tough on crime" leave potential criminal witnesses out in the cold, wondering whether they can trust a police force so predispossed to such callousness and the use of violence as a convenience?
It will be a long, long time before people forget what was done here. And alll police forces can expect a lot of spill-over questioning on their actions towards "criminals" as a result. It puts every agency permitted to use violence in order to secure "the public good" under
scrutiny. Finally.
The Sgt Pepper episode was a walk in the park compared to this, and many found no fault with police actions there. But the video evidence in this case has found overwhelming public outrage.
The implications this will have are as yet undetermined, but it might - and ought to - tone down the constant rhetoric being spewed by your typical right-wing populist about "cracking down" on "crime".
I only hope the media keeps the spotlight firmly pointed on them.

For me, the RCMP's slide began at some point in the late 80's/early 90's. I was personally very proud of our national police force. But the last 20 years have been a series of bungling and zealousness that could only have been instilled from on high. They're now an embarassment and a source of national shame. I'd find it very hard to believe or trust anything the RCMP did at this point and they've nobody to blame for that destruction of my trust but themselves.
So if police forces are wondering why the public won't get involved in their "fight against crime", they can read about that "witness" that was offed in Toronto this week or more specifically, watch a Youtube video on the execution of an innocent man who was scared, confused and unable to communicate.
Which could just as well describe a witness to a crime.

The RCMP needs a good, solid cleansing and far more oversight than has been allowed til now. For their sake and the sake of public trust, I hope it happens.

Anonymous said...

TEN HOURS!!! It should never have come to this! Yes the RCMP's actions were over-the-top and reprehensible, but I would suggest the Vancouver Airport Authority, Canada Customs, and Canada Immigration are just as responsible, or rather irresponsible, in the this tragedy.

Anonymous said...

"Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day says he wishes Canadians were as outraged over impaired driving deaths as they are over the death of a Polish immigrant shot with a Taser by police."
"The minister told a crowd in [Kelowna, B.C.] on Saturday that Dziekanski's death was tragic and it was right that the nation was aghast because he died needlessly.

But he says drunk driving accidents also claim countless lives and no one seems shocked or horrified about that." will probably have the video posted sometime late on Nov. 19, 2007 (they post the day after they broadcast).

Anonymous said...

Well, the Premier has just ordered a full public enquiry because the fallout is threatening our tourism industry

I don't know which is more sickening: The failure of all concerned leading to the poor man's death, the realization that there would have been no serious response if the video had not gone public, or the Premier's linking the public enqury to the threat this incident poses to the economy (as opposed to, say, the tragic waste of a human life, the threat of tasers to human safety, the integrity/public confidence in law enforcement, etc).