Busted

There was an incident at the Vancouver airport one month ago. Four big white guys jumped a new immigrant to Canada, killed him, and then claimed it was self-defense. If not for a bystander who videotaped the whole thing, they would have gotten away with it. Oh, did I mention that the four guys were policemen?

I rarely blog about the news but this is such a disturbing event that I have to say something. What happened is this: Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski got off a 15-hour flight from Frankfurt and was expecting to meet his mother in the luggage claim area. She told him she would meet him there, but didn’t know that only passengers are allowed in that area. He waited there for several hours, while his mother waited a hundred yards away in the public arrivals area. He spoke no English and so didn’t understand what he was supposed to do, and his mother, despite repeated appeals, couldn’t get anyone to go tell him she was waiting for him outside.

Eventually he made his way through customs and then waited a few more hours in another secure area that his mother couldn’t access. Meanwhile, his mother was told that he had never arrived in Vancouver and that she should go home, which she did. After waiting some 10 1/2 hours without any food or water, Dziekanski was distraught, frightened, and agitated, attracting the attention of security. The video shows him sweating and breathing heavily. In his frustration he picked up part of a computer and threw it down, and also threw a small folding side-table at a glass wall (which didn’t break). One woman traveller tried to talk to him, but the language barrier defeated her.

Finally the RCMP arrived. Four big guys with bullet-proof vests jumped over a barrier and swaggered into the glass-walled secure area, where Dziekanski was all alone. One of them was heard asking if they can use the taser, and told “yes.” Bystanders, perhaps airport security, told the RCMP officers that the man in question spoke no English, but that didn’t slow them down at all. They approached Dziekanski and instructed him to move to a more open area, which he did and then stood still, surrounded by the officers. Then, less than 30 seconds after they had arrived, they tasered him and he started screaming and convulsing, and fell to the ground. They tasered him at least once more, and then jumped on him. One officer put his knee on Dziekanski’s neck, while the others helped to hold him down. Dziekanski screamed and struggled for less than a minute and then went limp. An officer is seen checking for a pulse, and a bystander says he heard the office declare a “code red.” CPR was not performed, and by the time paramedics got there, 12 minutes later, it was far too late.

This is what we know because of a video taken by Paul Pritchard, and because of his brave actions afterwards. He initially handed his video over to police on the understanding that they would return it in 48 hours. Instead, they refused to return the video, and Pritchard eventually had to file a lawsuit to get it back. With Dziekanski’s mother’s permission he released the video to the media yesterday, and the country is now in shock.

As I wrote at the top of this post, the police initially claimed that Mr. Dziekanski was posing an immediate threat to themselves and the public. There were hints that drugs or mental illness may have been involved. We now know that none of that is true. Although the exact cause of his death has not been released, the coroner has stated that there was no alcohol or drugs in his system. Thanks to the video we can all see that Dziekanski was not acting in a threatening manner towards the police, and there were no members of the public near him to be threatened either. Frankly, it was all lies. He was a tired, hungry, distressed, panicky traveller who couldn’t speak the language, and he was killed for it.

There is a lot of discussion about tasers today, but to my mind that is not the issue. The taser didn’t kill him—it looks more like he was axphyxiated. The real issue is police brutality, and their lack of accountability to the public. If it were not for this video, we would have had to accept the story that the officers were being threatened by a crazy hopped-up foreigner and that his death was an unfortunate accident. A perfunctory internal investigation would have confirmed it, and that would have been the end of it.

How many times have we been through this? In August alone, four people died while in police custody in B.C. This week in Victoria there is an inquest into the shooting death of a car thief last February. Always we hear the same story about threatening behaviour and drug use. Are we supposed to believe it now? How can we?

I think it’s pretty obvious what we need, beyond the dismissal of the officers involved. The police need to be trained to use minimum force, even when they are being personally threatened. They need to be taught that their lives are no more valuable than anyone else’s. They also need to be surveiled by video as much as possible. But most importantly they need effective civilian oversight; they must never be allowed to investigate themselves again. It is a serious thing when the police can kill civilians and then exonerate themselves. No one should be above the law, least of all those charged with upholding it.

UPDATE: Polish translators have identified Dziekanski’s last words. When he saw the police arrive, he called out “Polizia! Polizia!” as though appealing to them for help. But when one of them pulls out a taser and points it at him, he cries, “Are you out of your mind?!” After that, only screams.

For a full video report on the incident, see here. Below is a poetic response to that report from one viewer:

A Poem: Another Taser Death: Fatal Intervention at Vancouver Airport, 7 Oct 07
(pat newson, comox, b.c. 15nov07)

First, a 15-hour flight
from a foreign land
his first ever trip
& his last on this plane

Then, 10 hours of waiting
a thousand people milling,
but none to talk or listen
in his mother tongue

Except his mother, but
she was beyond the walls
Her son, her son, her one
& only – oh to hold him

After hours & still not finding
him, his mother, in tears,
returns to Kamloops
to wait & wonder & wait

His weariness, his rage
no one to hear or care
He slams things, breaks
a computer – now!

The police, finally, salvation
the relief of giving over
to authority, to sort the mess
for want of a translator

But, ah, in time of terror
of terrorists, the armed fist
before the heart or head,
for want of a translator

A matter of seconds
& Robert Dziekanski is dead;
one more taser death
one more mark on our walls.

Zofia Cisowski mourns
Robert Dziekanski, rest in peace.

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26 comments on “Busted

  1. Sam Houston says:

    What a horror story. I don't know what to say. I can only hope that something good comes from this, that procedures are changed and that it never happens like this again. But that kind of optimism almost always turns out to be nothing more than wishful thinking. I hope, this time, that a lesson is learned.

  2. Sylvia says:

    Thanks, Sam. Though most authorities are taking a wait-and-see attitude, the Newfoundland police have cancelled an order for more tasers and have banned their use until the investigation is over (which could be years). Newfoundland is known for its compassion and hospitality, so it's not a complete surprise. They were the people who welcomed and sheltered thousands of stranded travellers on 9/11.
    I think lessons will be learned. Pretty much everyone in Canada has seen the video and know about the attempted cover-up. The police will not be able to weasel out of this one.

  3. turtlebella says:

    I hadn't heard of this. Man, it practically sounds like the States up there! Seriously. Totally horrifying. Every time something like this happens- both with and without tasers- I wonder why in the world the police appears to be trained to kill first, ask questions later. And why quite so much force is needed. I mean, the number of shots fired into people is way overboard (I was going to say overkill — sadly and horribly apt). There is always a lot of expressed horror and there are calls for change. But nothing seems to change. I hope it will be different in Canada.

  4. Milan says:

    I put a link to this post on this post of mine about the importance of photos and video for civilian oversight over police.

  5. Sylvia says:

    I hope so too, turtlebella. You're quite right, the police (and our army in Afganistan) are getting far too trigger-happy. Today in that inquest I mentioned it was revealed that 12 shots were fired, which hit, among other things, an electric utility box, a bus shelter, and a car that had someone in it. Also near here today a police cruiser caused a four-car pile-up during a high-speed chase (the “bad guy” got away). The men and women in blue are looking reckless these days.
    Thanks for that, Milan. If Big Brother is going to be watching us, Little Brother should be allowed to watch too.

  6. wil says:

    That is disturbing.
    I would not want to be a police officer. It seems like a very tough job — one that could easily engender feelings of get-them-before-they-get-you, fight-fire-with-fire, etc…but this is completely insane. I wonder what they were thinking? Did they really think he was a threat? Were they just “having some fun”?

  7. Sylvia says:

    Wil, you're right, it is the sort of job that can really skew one's view of reality. My landlord was a mountie for a while and he says he used to go home every night destroyed from seeing all the misery people inflict on each other.
    From watching the way those cops walked into the situation it looked like they were thinking they were the cavalry coming into save the world from crazy-foreign-guy. From their comments going in it seems the use of the taser was premeditated. The guy never had a chance.

  8. maal says:

    Hello, Where did you hear that the RCMP did it in self defense? In all the news media that I have seen about this. I have not heard any claims by the RCMP that it was in self defense. And it conflicts with everything else that I have heard about this.
    It is a disturbing occurance, and I understand that you feel affected enough to write about it. I do not say this to defend the RCMP, but I find it odd to hear your comment that they may have claimed it was in self defense. I don't understand how the RCMP knowing that the video is public would have made that kind of assertion.
    It may well be that you are closer to the story than the media as there is more information in your blog than I have read elsewhere.
    I know you said that you do not typically blog about the news, but I would like to suggest that your readers ALSO look at established news sources like cbc.ca for information about this disturbing event.

  9. maal says:

    sorry, very bad typo.
    'I don't understand how the RCMP know that the video is public would have NOT made that kind of assertion.'
    should read:
    'I don't understand how the RCMP know that the video is public would have made that kind of assertion.'
    the 'not' should definately NOT be there.

  10. maal says:

    sorry, very bad typo.
    'I don't understand how the RCMP know that the video is public would have NOT made that kind of assertion.'
    should read:
    'I don't understand how the RCMP know that the video is public would have made that kind of assertion.'
    the 'not' should definately NOT be there.

  11. Sylvia says:

    You're right, they say it's self-defense when they shoot someone. With tasers they really don't need a reason except to say the person was not cooperating. What gets me is that they tasered him again because he was convulsing and not lying still. Apparently convulsions after being shocked with electricity constitutes “resisting arrest.”

  12. Dorothy W. says:

    Wow — what a disturbing story. Thanks for the post. Your recommendations about what we should do make a lot of sense.

  13. Hermana Grande says:

    Reminds me of a joke: What's the difference between a terrorist and a Mountie with a Taser? You can negotiate with a terrorist.

  14. Stefanie says:

    How horrifying! We've had some incidents in Minneapolis over the past few years of police brutality and cover up. There's a big stink about it and then it quietly gets swept under the rug until something happens again. Sadly, nothing real is ever done. I hope that's not the case there, I hope somehow that whatever is broken gets fixed.

  15. Sylvia says:

    HG: Hmm, I've heard that joke, but with sopranos…
    Stefanie, I think this incident will have more impact because it involved our national police and it was caught on such high quality video (much better than it appears online). We are such a country of immigrants that there is a huge amount of sympathy for Mr. Dziekanski. Many Canadians have been in his shoes, unable to speak the language and bewildered at first.

  16. Sam Houston says:

    The video is now on YouTube, Sylvia, and I watched it a few minutes ago. It is shocking and sad. My heart goes out to this man and his mother.

  17. びっくり says:

    I think the situation had broken down long before the Mounties arrived. Certainly, if the man were making efforts to find his mother for more than ten hours, someone should have helped him. It seems pretty hard to believe.
    In defense of the Mounties' apparently premeditated use of tasers: if they were responding to a call about an angry man throwing computers and furniture, then they had to be preparing to subdue someone. While their use of source, from your description, sounds excessive; I can appreciate that they were entering a situation which had already gone grossly awry.
    I wonder why the man would have been acting out violently before they got there. Did something happen to create a fight, or was this his way of dealing with frustration? Without more information, this seems like a complicating factor.
    Balance and control of police forces is always delicate. When I moved to Houston there had been a long period of not hiring police and not raising pay (including some pay cuts). Officers who stayed must have fallen into one of three categories: incompetent/unable to gain employment elsewhere; receiving “compensation” from other sources; or truly dedicated to the protection of order in their city. There were stories of: off-duty officers chasing down civilians and gunning them down; bloody interrogations which ended with suspects handcuffed and face-down in a bayou; and so on. Also, the murder and violent crime rates had skyrocketed. An acquaintance of mine on the force, had completely justified in his mind their system of favoritism for relatives and hasty use of force on anyone arrested.
    The situation improved dramatically when a new mayor freed up funding to recruit and train qualified officers, but over-staffing police forces can create situations where bored police have to enforce silly infractions like jay-walking and we become members of a police state.
    Oh, for the days of Austen, when we expected people in authority to be men of honor. If only someone had helped our Polish friend hours earlier. If only he didn't react violently. If only four armed and trained officers hadn't realized their ability to slowly control the situation. I hope much is learned from this tragedy, because there really can be no justice in the end.

  18. Sylvia says:

    Sam, it's horrible, isn't it? I didn't post the video here because I just don't want to be reminded of it every time I come here. Not that I will ever get those images out of my mind…

  19. Sylvia says:

    Bikkuri, you're quite right that the situation was already seriously messed up by the time the police got there. The guy knew no English and had never flown before. He had no idea what to do, and obviously couldn't read any signs. It seems he was afraid of leaving the secure area without being cleared. If you watch the video, you see him piling some chairs on the door sensor to see if the doors will stay open so he can go out and come back in. That is the supposition on the part of the people who were there. It seems he was afraid of contravening some security procedure and getting deported. Considering he had no money and his mother had saved for 7 years to bring him over, there was a huge amount at stake for him. Add to that spending 10 hours with no food or water, after a trans-atlantic flight. Low blood sugar alone can cause erratic behaviour and the symptoms he was displaying (sweating, anxiety).
    Of course the police didn't know any of that when they arrived, and they certainly didn't take any time to find out, which was their first piece of bad policing. One ex-cop was reported as saying that not only did they do everything wrong, the way they restrained him after tasering him was illegal, especially the knee on the neck. The proper procedure is to put the person in an upright sitting position so they can breathe. Axphyxiation is a known risk with tasering.
    You're right about the delicate balance in policing. The media obviously has a role as public watchdog, and now with so many video-phones and whatnot the public is also watching. It's good because in court a police officer's testimony is always going to have more weight, and of course they stick together. You should have heard the local chief constable–he said the video was just one person's viewpoint. He doesn't quite get it yet, but I think he will.

  20. びっくり says:

    When I went to China in 1992, we had to stopover in Shanghai to go through customs before continuing on to Beijing. I accidentally stepped out through the door leading to Shanghai arrivals. The automatic door slid shut behind me and I was staring at a throng of people waiting for passengers. I had a moment of panic, but waited for the next person to leave and stepped back through the doors. Immediately, I turned to the closest armed guard to plead my case.
    Although I had the benefit of being a seasoned traveler, I was concerned about what might happen next. In hindsight, I probably should have been concerned that they let me continue on undisturbed. I could have gotten just about anything from a contact outside.
    I can certainly picture all sorts of concerns he would have had about violating security. The sad part is that no matter which mistakes were made and no matter what corrective actions are taken, we can't bring Robert back.
    As a child I always heard stories about the honorable Mounties, but I guess even in Austen's world people like Wickham could wear regimentals.

  21. Sylvia says:

    “The sad part is that no matter which mistakes were made and no matter what corrective actions are taken, we can't bring Robert back.”
    Sigh. I keep going through my mind how things could have been different, how easy it would have been to help him connect with his mother even without an interpreter. I wish it was just a TV movie and the actors in it could go on to have happy lives.
    I think we all know now that the Mounties are not what they used to be, or supposed to be. There was a big RCMP pension scandal not long ago, with revelations about the backward macho culture in the force. They are notorious for mistreating aboriginal Canadians. They do seem to be plagued by racism, and I think xenophobia was definitely a factor in Dziekanski's case. Well, it's an unfortunate fact of human nature that we fear and distrust people who are different from us, but the police are supposed to be impartial.
    Then there's the question of post-9/11 paranoia and the acceptance of pre-emption–get them before they get you. Just this week Canadian soldiers in Afganistan killed a civilian for not getting out of the way of their convoy. Way to win hearts and minds, guys. I saw a recent documentary about our soldiers over there. They treat the citizens like criminals, pushing them around, yelling and swearing at them (in English, of course; they can't be bothered to learn the language) and humiliating them. So much for friendly Canadians.
    Argh. This is why I don't blog about politics!

  22. Hermana Grande says:

    Those who are still yammering away that police have a really hard job to do, and we shouldn't judge them without walking in their boots, and they have to make split-second decisions, and it's very stressful, and yadda yadda yadda, should consider the arrest of Jonathan Rhys-Meyers this weekend in Dublin's airport. He was intoxicated. He was abusive to an airline staff member. He was cautioned twice by the airport police and refused to cooperate. The Garda were called and they arrested him. They didn't have to taser him to take him into custody. He was subsequently released on bail. No one died.
    The fact is that the police in North America have been using Tasers as if they were Star Trek “phasers on stun”. They're not. Numerous incidents have now shown that tasers are deadly weapons.

  23. Sylvia says:

    The phaser analogy is apt. You probably heard on the news that 80% of the people tasered in Canada were unarmed. I think it's just become a shortcut for (probably mostly male) cops who can't be bothered to work things out verbally. They need to start sending women out on those “dangerous” calls to keep a lid on things.

  24. Smithereens says:

    This is so shocking! I was in Vancouver airport 2 years ago, and after a 15+ hours flight from Europe, I was totally dazed and exhausted… and I remember the directions at Vancouver airport didn't seem very clear, so imagine it for a guy who speaks no English!

  25. Sylvia says:

    I know. The cramped planes and intimidating security processes are enough to put anyone on edge even under normal circumstances. There's a reality show that is just about people getting irate in airports. It happens all the time.
    Incidentally, if anyone is still reading this thread, the RCMP have put another unarmed man in hospital after tasering, pepper spraying, and splitting his head open with batons. He is not expected to live.

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