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.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Les stumbles on guns and gangs

Whenever someone calls John Les B.C.'s top cop, I flash to Chief Wiggum on the Simpsons.
Specifically, I see Wiggum in his familiar pose, standing in front of a burning plane wreck or exploding school bus, calling out "OK folks, show's over, nothing to see here."
Whenever a concern arises about an issue in his area of responsibility as solicitor general, Les responds pretty much the same way as Chief Wiggum.
When the opposition started asking questions about problems in the Coroners Service and hundreds of incomplete child death reviews abandoned in a warehouse, Les denied there were problems.
The Ted Hughes report showed he was wrong.
When the Vancouver Sun reported that lottery retailers were winning far more prizes than they should and raised fears about lottery security, Les said there was nothing to it. Everything was fine.
An ombudsman's report and external audit have found there were major security problems, minimal controls and ineffective policing by the Gaming Policy Enforcement Branch.
When a terrible crash focused attention on safety enforcement for farmworkers, it was the same story.
Now the issue is gang violence. Things have got crazy in the Lower Mainland, with 10 killings in less than three weeks, including public executions. No one has been arrested.
West Vancouver police Chief Kash Heed believes the fragmented policing in the region helps the gangs. They roam from municipality to municipality; police forces operate, for the most part, separately. That reduces their effectiveness.
Heed raised the issue in opinion pieces. And once again, instead of acknowledging the problem, Les went into denial. Worse, he moved to the attack, calling Heed's boss, the city's mayor, to complain. The chief should just stay quiet, Les suggested. Everything that could be done to fight gangs was already being done, he promised.
Once again, the approach backfired. Les was seen as the defender of the status quo, trying to gag police.
And within 24 hours, Vancouver police announced a new regional gang squad would be created in the coming weeks. Les's claim that everything was being done looked sadly out of touch.
The gang problem is a tough one. Regional policing would obviously help, allowing officers to track gangs and their members wherever they roamed, instead of passing files and requests back and forth.
Finding ways to reduce the money to be made in drugs, most obviously by increasing the availability of legal, prescribed drugs or alternatives, would also help.
And so would reducing the supply of guns. It's chilling to read the recent sentencing decision that saw Lower Mainland criminal Steven Porsch sent to jail for 16 years for arson, assault and selling guns. Undercover officers bought a steady supply of handguns and machine guns from Porsch. For less than $3,000 you could get a Sten gun that will shot 550 rounds a minute, and some ammunition.
It was not long ago that visiting U.S. officers were always struck by one major difference in policing on this side of the border. In Canada, you did not have to approach routine traffic stop as if the driver might be armed.
But in urban centres, that has changed. Guns are common in the gang and wannabe world.
The solutions aren't simple. The weapons are largely smuggled in from the U.S. Improved border security could make that task harder.
And the government act on legislation passed four years ago that would require every gun legally imported into the country be stamped with CA - for Canada - and a serial number. The measure is designed to help police keep track of illegal firearms.
Gun lobby groups oppose the measure, which is supposed to come into effect next month. The Harper government hasn't said if it will take the next step.
The government will likely pass legislation imposing mandatory miminum sentences for gun crimes. Mandatory minimums are a bad idea, removing needed discretion from the courts and encouraging plea bargaining for charges.
Anyway, the problem in dealing with gang crime isn't the sentences. Statistics suggest most gang killings are never solved. Until people are arrested and convicted, the sentence issue is theoretical.
Footnote: As another bad week ended for Les, his ministry announced it had taken action against the Hells Angels. The province has started the legal effort to prove their Nanaimo clubhouse is either the proceeds of crime or used for crime, which would it to be seized.