The Wild, Wild West

February 24, 2009 § Leave a comment

On 14 October 2007, Robert Dziekanski was trying to immigrate to Canada.  His mother already lived in the interior of British Columbia, so Dziekanski flew from Gliwice, Poland, to Vancouver.  But things went horribly awry at the Vancouver International Airport.  After a long, drawn out immigration process at Customs at the airport, Dziekanski was frustrated.  For one, he didn’t speak English, so he needed help with the immigration process.  Meanwhile, his mother, Zofia Cisowski was waiting for him in the airport at arrivals. But she could get no information about her son’s arrival, and at one point was even told by Canadian customs officials that he was not in the airport at all.  Around 10pm on the night of 13 October, she gave up and went home to Kamloops, several hours away from Vancouver.  She though Dziekanski had missed his flight.

Meanwhile, Dziekanski was increasingly agitated, and violent.  He threw a computer and a table across the customs area.  Staff and other passengers could not calm him down.  No one could speak Polish.  But, at the same time, no one thought to call airport maintenance worker Karol Vrba, who could.  Indeed, Vrba even offered his services, but was told to go back to work.  Meanwhile, the RCMP were called to deal with Dziekanski.  Officers were told that he was “extremely drunk.” Toxicology reports show he hadn’t been drinking.

As anyone who has followed this story, Dziekanski was killed that night by the RCMP, tasered to death.

What scares me is that the testimony of one of the officers in front of the inquiry into Dziekanski’s death, we have been told that the four officers who responded all came individually in their own cars, and did not discuss a game plan as to how to deal with the situation, neither over their radios nor in person upon arrival.   Indeed, Cst. Gerry Rundel reports that he felt threatened, “to a certain degree” because Dziekanski was acting in a “to hell with you guys” manner towards the police.  No kidding.  10 hoursof being caught in a Kafkaesque purgatory at the Vancouver International Airport, refused access to his mother, and refused any comprehensive translation services, who wouldn’t be upset?

This is from Cst. Rundel’s testimony at the Braidwood Inquiry, as summarised by The Globe and Mail yesterday:

“One bystander pointed Mr. Dziekanski out to the constable, and another told him that the man did not speak English.

Constable Rundel said he did not discuss these insights with the other officers.

He described Mr. Dziekanski as unkempt, sweaty, “perhaps disoriented,” and in a state consistent with intoxicated males he had seen in his policing experience.

“I recall Constable Bentley asked Mr. Dziekanski a question to the effect of ‘Hi. How are you doing?'”

Mr. Dziekanski said some words “in a language I did not understand,” and gestured to his luggage, prompting Cpl. Robinson to say “No” sharply and gesture to Mr. Dziekanski to stay away from the items, Constable Rundel said.

The officer said he assumed Mr. Dziekanski’s response suggested he understood basic gestures, adding he did not think Mr. Dziekanski’s lack of English was a barrier to communication.

Mr. Dziekanski stood up and moved away, but he had a “to hell with you guys manner,” Constable Rundel said.

He said Mr. Dziekanski flipped his hands up and moved away from the officers in what was deemed to be “non-compliant” way.

“I recall his combative behaviour. I recall fearing for my safety to a certain degree.”

He said this was a situation in which his training had taught him a taser could be used.”

It was not Cst. Rundel’s call to use the taster, he was not the ranking officer there.  But Dziekanski was tasered a total of five times.  The most frightening thing here for me is that the RCMP seems to think that this is acceptable.  That using the taser gun is a viable means of law enforcement.  Ignoring study after study after study that suggests that the taser is not entirely safe, the RCMP (and other police forces across Canada, do a google search) have continued to use tasers, resulting in 16 deaths in Canada between 2003 and 2007.  In many of these cases, such as Dziekanski’s, I find it hard to believe that police officers, who are supposed to be trained in such things, could not convince the targetted person to calm down.  In Dziekanski’s case, there was one of him and four police.  Surely four trained police officers could subdue one disoriented, upset Polish construction worker without tasering and killing him.

Finally, in February 2009, some 16 months after Dziekanski’s death, the RCMP has revamped its rules of engagement for the taser gun. While this is a positive development, I am left wondering what in the hell took them so long?

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