Mounties always get their man

The title words for this post have taken on a stark new meaning in recent times in Canada. I’ve been trying to write about the Robert Dziekanski incident from Vancouver International Airport in October for a week or so now, and haven’t been able to find the right words. I’m still not sure I’ve found them, but I’ve decided to soldier on anyway.

In my youth, the Mounties (officially, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, or RCMP) had almost a hallowed status in pop culture. Even though it was a Hollywood invention, the notion that a Mountie “always gets his man” was just part of a shining image of fair police work in difficult surroundings. Even when we were being made fun of, such as Dudley Do-Right, it was for excessive niceness and goodness rather than for other things.

In recent times, that image has taken a few severe hits. I’ve written previously about the Maher Arar affair (here, here, and here), the Syrian-Canadian man who was deported to Syria with RCMP complicity and tortured for close to a year over false terrorism allegations. Those events in 2002 showed a dark side to the way the RCMP handles our personal information, as well as how they treat Canadian citizens in difficulty elsewhere in the world. Their complicity in his arrest, detention, and torture will remain a black eye for the force for years to come.

But recently, with the death of Polish tourist Robert Dziekanski at Vancouver International Airport last month, the other eye is swelling. Arriving from Poland to visit his mother on his first ever trip away from his home, Dzienkanski arrived safely at VIA after more than 20 hours of travel and transit. Having spent a few 24 hour periods traveling from Lagos to Calgary in the 90’s, I can understand the level of exhaustion he must have been feeling when he got off the plane, but I was a fairly seasoned traveler who understood where I was and what I needed to do. Dzienkanski didn’t have that luxury. His mother had mistakenly told him to wait for her by the luggage carousel, forgetting that it is behind the secure barrier, closed to the general public.

With no way to contact his mother, Robert waited for more than 10 hours for her. Speaking no English at all, he obviously became more and more worried, concerned, hungry (there is no food or water in the secure zone of VIA) and tired as the hours wore on and when he became agitated hours later, nearly 30 hours after he’d left his home in Poland, it was hardly surprising. After 30 hours of travel for someone who’s never left their home before, the Dzienkanski I saw on the you-tube video of the event is behaving pretty normally from my perspective, especially when you consider he is in a place where he can’t communicate with anyone.

To me, the really surprising thing isn’t the way Dzienkanski was behaving when police arrived, 10 hours after he’d landed. Rather, what is surprising to me is that from all evidence, those police officers were the first official “help” Dziekanski got in the entire time he was there. At one point, the full video shows the crowd on the outside of the security zone pointing out an airport house phone intended to help travelers. To add to his frustration level, he finds he can’t get a hold of anyone on it either. How does a man who speaks no English manage to hang around in the secure zone of a modern airport for 10 hours without anyone … airport staff, security officers, airline staff … approaching him to try and help?

Forget the desire to help fellow human beings. Isn’t a guy wandering around the security zone of a modern airport unfettered for 10+ hours a pretty sever security breach? On that point alone, shouldn’t he have attracted the attention of security LONG before 10 hours had gone by? But the issue goes beyond security … Robert’s mother apparently contacted airline and airport staff several times while she waited, and was told unequivocally that the flight was empty, all passengers had disembarked, and no one was left in immigration. Clearly, no one actually CHECKED the area before assuring her it was empty, or Dziekanski would have been found.

I’m not sure I blame the cops for their reaction when they arrived. It does appear that they jumped to taser use far more quickly than necessary, and it worries me that the first taser shot was taken as he was backing away from cops, with his hands raised. Further, the second shot concerns me as it seems unnecessary given the clear fact that Dzienkanski was on the ground. However, its very difficult to speak about operational issues like that with so little information, and for the time being at least, I’m willing to give the officers involved the benefit of the doubt pending further investigation.

The main problem I see happened after the incident. The official statement by RCMP to the media immediately after the event was clearly false, given the evidence on the video. There were at least 3 specific misstatements of fact in the official RCMP statement.

  1. the initial report says that Dziekanski continued “throwing things around” until he had to be subdued. That is pure fiction, as the video clearly shows he didn’t throw anything while the police were there …
  2. Police claimed the first taser shot “didn’t seem to have any effect on him.” Clearly, the tape shows he fell to the floor convulsing after the first shot. Thats hardly no effect
  3. The initial report claims the cops held Dziekanski down face up, by the shoulders. Again, the video shows this simply isn’t true … he was face down, with several knees in his back and neck

A fourth issue that wasn’t mentioned in the initial statement was that police had seized the cell-phone video of the event taken by by-stander Paul Pritchard. The existence of the video was never disclosed, and Pritchard had to take legal action against the police to get his seized video back. That seized video is the main reason we now know the RCMP report on the incident was false in several key details. While we certainly need more investigation into who ordered the false report, the actions surrounding the report and the video seizure smack of a cover-up, and border on obstruction of justice IMO.

I don’t know if the taser killed Dziekanski or not … thats not what this article is about. That is something that will be determined by investigation and science. But there is one thing that is clear to me. For more than 10 hours, Robert Dziekanski wandered in a secure area of an airport, confused and hungry, unable to speak the language. During that time, had ANYONE taken the time to try and help him and found a translator, Robert would be at home with his mother right now. It seems to me there is plenty of blame to go around, but the sad irony of all this is that as he neared the end of his life, Dzienkanski was actually asking for police, hoping they’d be able to help him. Instead, within 30 seconds of their arrival, they’d tasered him twice and he was dead mere hours later. I don’t know where the blame needs to go at this point, or how it will be apportioned out, but this I do know … if anyone from the airport, security, airline, or police had actually tried to help Robert Dziekanski sometime in the 10 hours leading up to his death, he’d be alive today, enjoying a nice Sunday with his mother. And thats the REAL crime here IMO …


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