Since 2000, when B.C. became the first province to approve the use of Tasers by police, stun guns have been a readily available weapon for officers who want to disable a dangerous suspect without killing him.
But the public death of Robert Dziekanski, the Polish immigrant who died at Vancouver airport after being Tasered repeatedly by RCMP officers, is prompting a hard look at the devices – and at the credibility of Canada’s national police force.
Dziekanski’s disturbing death and police Taser use in B.C. were the subjects of a public inquiry that just wrapped up in Vancouver. (A Taser report is expected by June 30, while the Dziekanski report may not come until the fall.)
Dziekanski flew to Vancouver on Oct. 13, 2007 to meet his mother, a Kamloops resident, and begin a new life in Canada. She left the airport after being told her son couldn’t be located, while Dziekanski spent 10 frustrating hours in limbo.
He became agitated and eventually angry. He threw office equipment and a chair against a glass wall.
A few people tried to intervene, to talk to him, but he didn’t speak English and nobody there spoke Polish. Eventually, police were called.
Within 30 seconds of four uniformed officers arriving, Dziekanski was Tasered five times. He thrashed around on the floor, bellowing like a wounded animal as thousands of volts of electricity coursed through his body, and officers piled onto him. He was soon dead.
It was all captured on video by Paul Pritchard, who promptly had his digital camera seized by police officers who promised to return it within 48 hours. He got it back a month later, only after threatening to sue the RCMP for its return.
What the video revealed was so far removed from the RCMP account of what happened that the fallout has scarred the force locally, nationally and globally. Compounding the damage, the four Mounties involved stubbornly stuck to their stories in inquiry testimony – that Dziekanski was tasered because he was threatening the officers and resisting arrest.
Dziekanski had a stapler in his hand when he went down, but he also seemed to be complying with police directions, one officer admitted under cross-examination. As a B.C. hostage negotiator commented to one Vancouver reporter, “If you were to put weapons on a continuum with firearms at one end and paper clips at the other, this stapler would be down towards the paper clips.”
RCMP investigators travelled to Poland in an effort to dig up dirt on Dziekanski, such as evidence of alcoholism, drug abuse or psychological impairment (there was no drugs or alcohol in his system, according to the autopsy). No charges were laid in his death.
While the RCMP are under an uncomfortable microscope in this case, there’s plenty of blame to spread around. Dziekanski’s death was a collective, fatal failure in a city getting set to host the world.
There have been enough deaths and ugly incidents, not to mention technical problems, to merit an RCMP moratorium on Taser use. At the least, the devices should be fitted with Taser cams that record what happens each time they are discharged.
Such a precaution would go some distance toward re-establishing trust between a tarnished police force with a proud history and the citizens it has sworn to protect.
James Kwantes is a former Advocate editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.