“The hypothesis, which seems to me the most fertile, is that the news and truth are not the same thing, and must be clearly distinguished.”
– Walter Lippmann
October 14, 2007, a man died at Vancouver Airport when four RCMP officers attempted to take him into custody. That evening, Canada’s television networks reported on the incident (available at www.youtube.com).
CBC’s Chris Brown (my spelling) described the death of a “distraught man that no one could understand or reason with”. RCMP spokesperson Sgt. Pierre Lemaitre was interviewed at the scene and indicated that the deceased “was pounding on the windows behind us, he was throwing chairs, at one point he grabs some computer equipment off the desk here at the airport, threw that to the ground”. Brown reported “when the man appeared poised to throw something at them, one of the officers pulled out his taser”. After the individual was shot with the taser, Lemaitre stated, “The man fell to the ground, uh, yet still continued to be combative and fight”. Brown concludes his report by informing his audience that “police say moments after they handcuffed the man, he stopped breathing and was pronounced dead at the scene”.
The same evening, Lauren MacNab (my spelling) reported for Global News on the incident, indicating that the “RCMP in Vancouver say they had no choice but to use [a taser] today on a yet unknown but clearly agitated man”. According to Sgt. Lemaitre, the deceased “was sweating profusely, he had tipped over his luggage cart, uh, he was pounding on windows, he grabbed a, uh, computer off of one of the, uh, workstations and thrown it to the ground”. MacNab stated, “While he was shouting in an Eastern European language, the RCMP say they don’t know where he was coming from, only that he had just arrived. After repeatedly ignoring their calls for him to calm down, the decision was made to use the taser. Even after the man in his forties was struck with 50,000 volts of electricity, he continued to struggle. Then, just four minutes after he was placed in handcuffs, he wasn’t moving at all”.
The following evening, October 15, CTV News followed up with a report by Lisa Rosington (my spelling). The dead man had now been identified as Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski. Through a series of unfortunate events, airport officials had directed Dziekanski, who spoke no English, to a reception area and left him there to languish without explanation. After being in the airport for more than ten hours and still waiting to meet his mother, he became irate. It was his ensuing behaviour that brought the RCMP to the scene. Spokesperson Sgt. Pierre Lemaitre explained, “We were told that the security personnel had a man who was throwing chairs around, pamphlets around, yelling, screaming, taking his fists and pounding on the glass”. Witnesses to the altercation were reported to have expressed the belief that the RCMP had used excessive force. Lemaitre rejected that assertion, indicating, “There were no choke holds placed, there were no punches thrown. They were just trying to get him to settle down. They were able to place handcuffs on the individual and, uh, during that course as they’re still trying to get him to calm down the man slipped into unconsciousness”. Asked whether or not there was an alternative to the use of a taser, Rosington reported “the Mounties say pepper spray wasn’t ideal because the area was crowded with travelers and suggest that the baton may have been too violent.” Lemaitre also indicated “There was only one officer trained to use [the taser], and that was the one who used it”.
These and other reports left their audiences with the impression that a hysterical wild man had been rampaging through the Vancouver Airport and that, under the circumstances, the officers’ response had been appropriate in trying to protect both the public and the suspect from unnecessary harm.
While accusations of excessive force continued to appear in the media, the official rendition of events was not vigorously challenged until after Nov. 14, when the RCMP reluctantly returned a home video they had confiscated at the time from eyewitness Paul Pritchard, of Victoria, B.C. In The Globe and Mail on Friday, Nov. 16, columnist Rod Mickleburgh reported that the RCMP had initially refused to return the video because it was “evidence vital to the investigation”, but relented under the pressure of Pritchard’s legal demands for its return. Now that the film footage is in the public domain, the RCMP describes it as “only one piece of evidence” in their investigation.
Paul Pritchard’s full ten-minute video of the incident (also available at www.youtube.com), clearly illustrates that the statements made by RCMP spokesperson Sgt. Pierre Lemaitre were both inaccurate and misleading.
Pritchard was filming from a public concourse adjacent to the glass enclosed reception area in which Dziekanski was waiting. Dziekanski is alone in this area until the RCMP arrives. One minute into the filming, Dziekanski stands at a set of automatic doors with a small folding chair held in front of him. He holds it in such a way as to keep the automatic doors open while he talks to other passengers across a four-foot handrail. He is not using the chair as a weapon, nor does he threaten anyone. Dziekanski talks with other passengers for almost two minutes. These other passengers determine that he cannot speak English and are overheard talking among themselves, trying to summon someone in authority to the scene. While clearly agitated and breathing heavily, at no point is Dziekanski “yelling” or “screaming” and it is obvious that he is not a danger to the other passengers.
There is a break in Pritchard’s filming and then we see a woman conversing with Dziekanski through the glass wall of the reception area for almost a minute.
About four minutes into the video, he pulls a computer hard drive from the reception area’s kiosk counter and throws it to the ground, then picks up the folding chair he was holding earlier and throws it against the glass partition to no effect.
Security staff appears on screen seconds later and a witness explains to them, “He speaks Russian and nobody can help him. We need a Russian interpreter here to calm him down.” Dziekanski remains in the isolated reception area, making no threatening moves towards the security personnel, who stay outside of the automated doors.
Witnesses continue talking to the security staff. A woman is heard to say, “He’s so scared himself. Just leave him.” A man asks, “Why aren’t police officers here? You guys came. You got the police?” To which a security guard responds, “Everyone just calm down, okay? Please.”
Everyone is quiet and calm, including Dziekanski, until six minutes into the taping when RCMP officers arrive on the scene. Dziekanski returns to the automatic doors and calls out to them as they approach, twice repeating three syllables, presumably in Polish, that sound as if he is saying, “polika, polika”.
As the RCMP approach, a security officer and various witnesses repeatedly tell them that the man does not understand English. At 6:19 of the taping, they climb over the handrail, opening the automatic doors. An officer can be heard saying, “How are you, sir? How ya, bud?”
The officers walk into the reception area unopposed and are alone with Dziekanski, who gestures to his bag and the computer on the floor while he talks to an officer. He is clearly not acting irrationally. One of the officers is standing behind him. All of the RCMP officers are within two or three feet of Dziekanski and they appear to have the situation under control.
What transpires next is not quite clear. At 6:36, an officer seems to direct Dziekanski to move away from his bag, pointing away from it in another direction. Dziekanski raises his arms in a gesture of compliance and cooperates, moving off in the direction the officer is pointing. His hands are open and empty.
The four officers follow Dziekanski over behind the kiosk and our field of vision becomes obscured by the kiosk itself. At 6:41, it appears that an officer may have attempted to place him in handcuffs. Dziekanski has moved away from the officer who was pointing, his back pressed against the kiosk in a defensive manner, and he is speaking excitedly.
Inexplicably, rather than grabbing Dziekanski, from whom they have been mere inches away, the RCMP officers step back and fan out, surrounding Dziekanski. At 6:45 he is shot with a taser. Dziekanski starts screaming in pain and falls to the floor clutching his chest. As he is writhing on the floor he is shot again at 6:52.
The officers pounce on him at 6:59. Dziekanski is in a fetal position, grabbing his chest and screaming in agony while the officers struggle with him to pull his hands from his chest and handcuff them behind his back. They apply their full body weight to holding him down, kneeling on his neck and back and sitting on his legs. All four RCMP officers assist in forcing him down flat on his stomach. At 8:00 it appears that the suspect, although still struggling, has been restrained and is under control.
At 8:13 of the tape we hear a last moan from Dziekanski who is still feebly struggling, prompting an officer to aggressively press down on his neck in response. By 8:28 he is no longer moving. At 8:43 it appears that Dziekanski is unconscious and the officers relax their grip. After 9:00 they are checking for breathing and a pulse.
In retrospect, by 9:30 on the tape, it is apparent that the suspect who was being taken into custody for vandalizing a computer and causing a public disturbance is dead. About three minutes had passed between the time Dziekanski was calmly talking to the RCMP officers and his handcuffed corpse lays sprawled on the airport floor.
Contrary to Sgt. Lemaitre’s public statements of Nov.14, made prior to the video’s public release, at no time does Dziekanski appear “poised to throw something” at the officers – one of two justifications given for the use of the taser. It was also reported “After repeatedly ignoring their calls for him to calm down, the decision was made to use the taser. Even after the man in his forties was struck with 50,000 volts of electricity, he continued to struggle.” Approximately four seconds appear to have elapsed between the time officers initially tried to handcuff Dziekanski and the first shot from a taser – not much time to “repeatedly ignore their calls for him to calm down”, even if he had understood what they were saying. In his public statements, Sgt. Lemaitre also neglected to mention that Dziekanski was shot twice with 50,000 volts of electricity within a seven-second interval, the second time when he was incapacitated and had fallen to the ground.
Lemaitre stated that after Dziekanski fell to the ground, he “still continued to be combative and fight” and the four officers pinning him to the ground “were just trying to get him to settle down. They were able to place handcuffs on the individual and, uh, during that course as they’re still trying to get him to calm down the man slipped into unconsciousness.” Dziekanski was involuntarily writhing in pain caused by two taser shots of 50,000 volts. It’s hard to imagine anyone lying still under those circumstances. While trying to breath with the combined weight of four police officers pressing down on him, Dziekanski may have experienced a heart attack, then suffocated.
Dziekanski was described as a “distraught man that no one could understand or reason with”, even though he had been calmly conversing with RCMP officers for several seconds and had been cooperative before his sudden death.
Dziekanski was not “throwing chairs” – he threw a chair. While the video cannot show us what had happened prior to Paul Pritchard’s filming, Dziekanski is not seen “yelling, screaming, taking his fists and pounding on the glass”, therefore the officers, who arrived after filming started, could not have seen such behaviour either. The only screaming we see Dziekanski do is after he has been tasered.
Global News reported RCMP officials as saying the officers “had no choice” but to use the taser. As an alternative to the use of a taser, CTV News reported “the Mounties say pepper spray wasn’t ideal because the area was crowded with travelers and suggest that the baton may have been too violent.” Throughout Pritchard’s video, it is very clear that there were no other travelers near Dziekanski, who was isolated in a separate area. During the entire incident, he remains alone within an enclosed area until confronted by the RCMP, who stood all around him within two or three feet without being threatened.
Tasers were introduced in Canada as a “less lethal” alternative to the use of “lethal force” – guns. It is impossible to imagine that the officers ever considered drawing their guns on Dziekanski, and equally unimaginable that they truly believed he was so great a threat that they had “no choice” but to use the “less lethal” alternative. No one was in danger. There was no compelling justification at all for the use of tasers, pepper spray, or even batons to subdue Dziekanski.
Sixteen Canadians have died since 2003 after being tasered, according to Vancouver lawyer Cameron Ward. Six of them have been in British Columbia, three in Vancouver.
In 1999, representatives from police departments across Canada gathered at the Ontario Police College for a three-day conference to develop a national model to train officers in the use of force. The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police released “A National Use of Force Framework” in November 2000. A representative of the RCMP was a participant in its creation. The framework consists of a graduated response in the use of force for any situation an officer might encounter. Principle one states, “The primary responsibility of a peace officer is to preserve and protect life.” Principle two states, “The primary objective of any use of force is to ensure public safety.” Neither principle was considered in Vancouver airport on Nov.14, 2007.
On June 14, 2005, The Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner British Columbia, Canada (OPCC), released a report on the use of tasers entitled Taser Technology Review: Final Report, in response to public concerns over increasing injuries and deaths associated with the use of conducted energy devices (CEDs), as tasers are also known (“Taser” is actually one brand name among several commercial models of CEDs). In their introduction, the report’s contributors (all police officers of various ranks), reject the use of terms such as “less than lethal” and “less lethal” explaining, “We believe this terminology has inadvertently created a mindset among users and the public that these weapons can never have lethal effects; an expectation that is clearly unrealistic. Throughout this document, and in our supporting material, we have used the term ‘lower lethality’ which more accurately conveys the notion that death may be associated to the use of these technologies.”
The OPCC report recommended that tasers be used only under very specific circumstances, with equally specific methods in their use once deployed.
Tasers should not be used against someone who is “passively resisting”. Police should not use the taser multiple times. After a taser shock, the subject should be restrained in a way that allows him to breath easily. The report also recommends “Where individuals are contained in a room, officers should use the time to formulate a plan for entry and restraint that allows them to immediately turn the person over to ambulance personnel.” None of these guidelines were followed in Vancouver Airport on Nov.14, 2007.
On Nov.15, Sgt. Lemaitre also stated “There was only one officer trained to use [the taser], and that was the one who used it”. At the very least, that officer is guilty of criminal negligence causing the death of Robert Dziekanski by first shooting him twice with the taser in quick succession, and second, by allowing and participating in the pinning of Dziekanski which impeded his ability to breath. To suggest that this officer followed the procedures of his training, as RCMP Sgt. Lemaitre did, defies all credibility.
These contradictions cannot be reconciled. It can only be concluded that either the officers responsible for Robert Dziekanski’s death lied to their superiors, or RCMP spokesperson Sgt. Pierre Lemaitre knowingly misrepresented the facts and intentionally misled the public.
Columnist Katie Rook reported in the Toronto issue of the National Post on Saturday, November 17, 2007, that Municipal police forces in B.C.’s Lower Mainland deployed the taser a total of 152 times in 2006, up from 97 deployments in 2005, an increase of more than 56 %. Over the past two years, the RCMP in British Columbia reported 914 uses of the taser. In the four years prior, tasers were only used by the RCMP 563 times. An analysis by The Canadian Press of all taser incidents reported by the Mounties revealed that more than 79 % of people tasered were not brandishing a weapon. It seems that the taser is becoming the weapon of choice.
I can understand why. No officer wants to be bitten by a diseased felon, or grapple with a suspect then come away with a broken nose, or worse. Police are regularly being murdered and maimed in Canada and the numbers continue to grow, along with our society’s other crime statistics. Why risk life and limb when you can just point and shoot? Well, considering the time, training and resources that go into commissioning an RCMP constable, I think the public is justified in demanding more. RCMP officers are paid well because a great deal is expected of them. Risk is part the job. The possibility of personal injury should be anticipated, just as it is with soldiers, firemen and paramedics. A “regular member” constable earns $72,125 annually, plus benefits, and a full pension after 25 years of service. In a 25-year career with an annual raise of 3%, a recruit will have earned more than 2.3 million dollars in salary alone, assuming he is never promoted. Compare that to a minimum wage earner in B.C. or Ontario who makes about $12,800 a year with no benefits and no pension; if I wanted someone to just point and shoot a taser, I could hire him for 8 dollars an hour and save a hell of a lot of money for the state.
Recall why the “less lethal” alternative was introduced in the first place – too many cops were pointing and shooting their guns. Are we to accept the misuse of tasers as the lesser of two evils, consoling ourselves with the knowledge that fewer suspects are being killed? These women and men have state sanctioned authority over their fellow citizens; it should not be a license to kill. There is nothing wrong with police officers deploying tasers – if protocols for their use are adhered to. The death of Robert Dziekanski was not a tragic accident. It was the result of professional misconduct.
Federal Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day has ordered a review of the use of tasers. On Nov.15, Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion said he hadn’t seen the video. “We know that the RCMP are reviewing the use of the taser and this must be done because of unfortunate accidents and I want to carry the sympathy of our party to the family,” Mr. Dion said during a visit to Victoria. “This unacceptable situation should be corrected.”
A review of the taser’s use by our federal government is a cowardly avoidance of the truth – RCMP officers abused their power and killed a man. Again. This is the real “unacceptable situation” to which Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion should be referring. It was not an “unfortunate accident”. We don’t have reviews to consider the merits of police officers carrying guns every time a cop shoots someone; we ask if the shooting was justified. If a cop beats someone with a baton or pepper sprays him or her, we ask if it was an appropriate course of action; we don’t call into question the efficacy of using these tools of law enforcement. If a drunk driver runs someone over, do we question the use of cars? If a speeding driver kills someone, do we consider it an unfortunate accident?
Deputy Commissioner Gary Bass, commanding officer for the RCMP in British Columbia, told The Globe and Mail that members of the public have been acting “very aggressively” toward officers since Mr. Dziekanski’s death. Bass disclosed that the four officers involved in the incident – one a relatively senior corporal, the other three with one to three years’ experience – were reassigned to office duties two days after the Oct. 14 incident, in part to guarantee their personal safety. “They’re doing work that doesn’t require them to be in front-line duties,” he said. Such a move is not standard practice, he said, but was judged to be a prudent step.
The Federal Commission For Public Complaints Against The RCMP will be conducting an investigation. The Commission’s Chair, Paul E. Kennedy, stated he does not want to “prejudice” the RCMP investigation by interfering, but will be “closely monitoring RCMP progress as it relates to the investigations underway so that I can ensure, at their completion, a timely response to this complaint.”
On the RCMP website, Commissioner William J.S. Elliott posted a statement expressing his concern “that growing misperceptions are eroding the public’s confidence in the RCMP.” He explained “The RCMP recognizes the video images recently made public are disturbing for anyone who sees them. We do not, however, believe that it is appropriate to draw conclusions based on these images alone.”
An erosion of the public’s confidence in the RCMP should be no surprise, given its recent history. The public’s distrust of the RCMP is not based on “misperceptions”, but definite perceptions of criminal malfeasance. Here are two blatant examples:
A coroner’s inquest into the death of Kevin St. Arnaud, 29, ended January 26, 2007, with the jury classifying the death as a homicide. They heard evidence that RCMP constable Ryan Sheremetta shot Kevin St. Arnaud three times in the chest from a distance of some 5.5 metres in the early morning hours of December 19, 2004. Kevin was intoxicated, unarmed, had his hands up and was holding only a white plastic bag and two plastic pill bottles just before he was killed. He had broken into a pharmacy and was being pursued across a soccer field by two RCMP officers.
Constable Sheremetta testified under oath he fired all three bullets from flat on his back after falling in the snow. He claimed to fear for his life because Kevin advanced on him with his right hand in his pocket and he felt that St. Arnaud was going to pull a weapon. Sheremetta claimed Kevin approached him in a menacing manner, shouting, “you’re gonna have to shoot me motherfucker”.
His partner Constable Colleen Erickson, a twenty-four year veteran of the RCMP, saw the shooting from nearby and testified that Sheremetta was standing “in a combat stance” when he fired the shots and that she did not hear the alleged threat. A civilian eyewitness who also contradicted Sheremetta’s testimony was Abe Klassen. He reported that Sheremetta was standing just before the shooting, and that St. Arnaud had his hands up in surrender.
The testimony of five witnesses contradicted Constable Sheremetta’s version of the shooting.
The forensic evidence of three experts revealed that both men were standing, that Kevin St. Arnaud was stationary just before he collapsed, and that the three fatal bullets entered his body in a downward trajectory of 30 to 40 degrees.
Although there were residential homes facing the scene of the shooting, about 100 metres away, none of the 31 RCMP officers who investigated the shooting interviewed their occupants to determine if anyone had seen or heard anything.
The primary investigator, RCMP Staff Sgt. Glenn Krebs, conceded that he concluded in April of 2005 that there were “inaccuracies” in Sheremetta’s account, but his superior, RCMP Staff Sgt. Flath, nonetheless subsequently advised Crown Counsel that there was “insufficient evidence” to support criminal charges, despite the fact that the jury in the coroner’s inquest classified Kevin St. Arnaud’s death as a homicide.
When interviewed about the inquest’s findings by CBC’s Terry Milewski, RCMP spokesperson Pierre Lemaitre, then a Corporal, stated “There were no surprises in the coroner’s inquest to us. What we heard we already knew.” Milewski asked, “So you knew that Sheremetta’s story about what happened would be contradicted by five other witnesses?” Cpl. Lemaitre replied, “Yes, we did and we presented that exact investigation to the Crown.” “Doesn’t that fact bother you?” Milewski asked, to which Lemaitre answered, “Again, I repeat, it’s been my experience and certainly the experience of major crime investigators that when you have witnesses who recollect an event, it’s always a little different.” Constable Ryan Sheremetta has since returned to active duty.
On October 29, 2005, Ian Bush, 22, was arrested outside a small town hockey arena in northwestern B.C. for possessing an open beer and giving police a false name. Bush did not have a criminal record. Twenty minutes later, the arresting officer Constable Paul Koester shot Bush in the back of the head while alone with him in a detachment cell. Koester said he was “fighting for his life” when he shot Bush. Koester also said he was about to black out from being in a chokehold applied from behind by Bush when he discharged his weapon.
Koester, 28, acknowledged at a coroner’s inquest that he did not provide a written statement about the incident until three weeks after Bush was shot dead. It wasn’t until three months after the death that Koester was formally interviewed about the shooting.
A blood splatter expert testified at the coroner’s inquest that the position of the blood marks showed it was impossible for the officer to have been choked from behind while he was firing his weapon.
Ian Bush’s body remained where he died for two and a half days before a coroner examined the body.
Pathologist Dr. John Stefanelli said the post mortem showed a gun had been partially pressed to Bush’s head, but because Bush’s body was never refrigerated before he did the autopsy and had started to decompose, any detailed analysis was “problematic.”
On Nov. 29, 2007, Paul E. Kennedy, the chair of the Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP, currently “monitoring” the RCMP’s investigation into the death of Robert Dziekanski, ruled that Const. Paul Koester had acted in self-defense and had a reasonable apprehension of death. “I found as a matter of fact Ian Bush was behind and on top of Officer Koester, that Officer Koester took his gun, struck him three times in the head to force him to release and he wasn’t released,” he stated.
RCMP spokesperson Corporal Pierre Lemaitre described the shooting of Ian Bush by Constable Paul Koester as “a horrible tragedy that both Koester and the Bush family will have to live with for the rest of their lives.” Asked about the fact that Bush’s body was left to decompose in the room where he was shot for two and a half days, Lemaitre said, “That is not unreasonable, it’s expected in a crime scene investigation.”
Cpl. Pierre Lemaitre
It is extremely unlikely that any significant reforms will result from Robert Dziekanski’s death, anymore than there were after the deaths of fifteen others before him. I doubt that any officer will be appropriately punished for this wrongful death. Time will pass, memories will fade; our indignation will subside. He will be forgotten, as were all the others, until the next taser victim is added to the growing list of names.
Police violence is not becoming epidemic in Canada; it is intrinsic to the way our country functions. As the burdens of competing with one another for wealth and security in our modern society intensify, so will the incidence of violent conflict. As of 2006, the population of Canada was estimated to be almost 33 million. More than 15 million reside in the ten largest urban centres of the country, more than two thirds in the largest one hundred. There are limits to our potential for growth, both economically and environmentally, yet our political leadership behaves as if it is oblivious to these self-evident truths.
As our population continues to grow, so does the strain on our communal resources. Public services must increase every year to satisfy our collective needs. More food, electricity, housing, health care, schools, transportation and policing services are required if our cities are to be adequately sustained. More waste and pollution must be dealt with. Our infrastructures are already crumbling from financial neglect while soaring public debt limits future initiatives for urban renewal. Every year more people compete for less. What does our future hold, if not more chaos?
Unless you are wealthy, (which affords you power and protection), you only possess the illusion of civil rights; the mirage will quickly dissipate when you try to exercise them. The police are not here to “serve and protect” you; they are not even here to “uphold the law”, necessarily. They are here to maintain order. If abuses occur and “ordinary” citizens suffer as a result, that is an unfortunate part of the price our leaders are willing to pay for the privilege of maintaining order in our society.
If ever you find yourself in the midst of a peaceful public demonstration, an organized act of legal civil disobedience, or even circumstances beyond your control and a police officer gives you a command, don’t think twice. Comply immediately. Don’t let thoughts of exercising your civil rights cloud your judgment. Don’t question the officer’s authority. Do as you are told, it could save your life – but still, be prepared for a shock. The officer “serving” you might be having a bad day.