Are the Canadian Police Taser-Happy Mounties?

On October 14, Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) at the Vancouver International airport were called to engage passenger Robert Dziekanski, who had recently arrived in Canada after his first airplane flight. By "recently arrived," I really mean "he spent ten hours in the baggage claim area." Dziekanski, who does not speak English, was quite agitated. Dziekanski was yelling and waving his arms in the air, and, at one point, he threw a chair against a wall. He was supposed to meet his mother at the airport but was unable to leave the secured area. No one knows why. He could not communicate with anyone to let them know his mother was waiting. Eventually she was told he had not arrived, and she went home.

Unbeknownst to Dziekanski and the responding RCMP officers, a bemused citizen was filming Dziekanski, finding him not threatening but amusing. On the video you can see people approach the man, try to help and then walk away.

Paul Pritchard, the man behind the camera, watched the final half hour of Dziekanski's life. "I sat there watching for at least 25 minutes before police and security arrived. We tried to calm him down. The police came. There was no attempt to calm him down. There was no attempt to restrain him. There was no attempt to bring in a translator."

In the midst of filming Dziekanski, the videographer realizes that the RCMP are coming and turns his camera on them, catching this bit of dialogue.

"Can I Taser him?"

"Yes."

Within 26 seconds of arriving on the scene, the RCMP Taser Dziekanski. In the moments before he is seen throwing his hands up in the air (obviously frustrated) shaking his head and trying to walk away. It is when he turns to walk away that they strike.

As he staggers on the ground, yelling and writhing, they Taser him again. One officer kneels down on his neck to subdue him further. While he fights and struggles, they continue to subdue the now combative man.

Within minutes he passes out. About ten minutes after the RCMP arrive on the scene, Dziekanski is dead. On the video you can see the realization dawning on the officers. They are checking for a pulse, holding a mini-conference and calling for a code red. But no one attempts any sort of CPR or life-saving procedure. They simply kneel there or pace around him.

Canadians and the international community want to know what went wrong. In Canada it is illegal for a citizen to own a Taser. But since 1999 - when Tasers were given to the RCMP - 18 people in Canada have died shortly after being shocked.

In many dangerous situations, the Taser can save the lives of police officers and suspects. Less deadly than a gun, a taser is to be used only when there is immanent danger to a suspect or someone else. According to the Province:

A 2005 report by the B.C. police complaints commissioner listed a number of key safety recommendations for the use of a Taser. Chief among the recommendations were: Tasers should be used only against a subject who is actively resisting arrest or posing a risk to others, not someone who is passively resisting. In this case, Dziekanski, who did not speak English, appeared not to be resisting, and there were no other people in the area who could be hurt by his actions. Officers should avoid shocking a subject multiple times. Dziekanski was shocked twice within a matter of seconds. Following a Taser shock, a subject should be restrained in a way that allows him to breathe easily. At one point, four officers were on top of Dziekanski. Two officers knelt with their full weight on his neck and back. The Taser Technology Review Final Report states: "Subjects who struggle with police are almost always restrained in a face-down position. If subjects are pinned down with a great deal of weight placed on their shoulders and back for a long period of time it may hamper their ability to breathe rapidly enough.

While Tony Cannavino, president of the Canadian Police Association defends the use of tasers because they save lives, I can only agree to a point. Which do you think would have been more effective with Dziekanski: showing him a Taser on your hip and threatening to use it when he a) can't understand what you are saying and b) has likely never seen a Taser before, or showing him a gun? There is no sure way to know.

The four officers in question - now reassigned - could be facing criminal charges, and Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day has announced three separate, independent inquiries into the incident. But a coroner's inquest isn't scheduled until Spring 2008. CanWest News Service reports:

Also, Day said he ordered a review of the use of Tasers in Canada and asked Canada Border Services Agency to explain how Dziekanski, who spoke only Polish, got through customs, and why he was left alone in a secure area for nearly 10 hours.

And from CBC:

Retired superintendent Ron Foyle, a 33-year veteran of the Vancouver police who saw the video tape, said he didn't know "why it ever became a police incident. It didn't seem that he made any threatening gestures towards them."

In the days immediately after the incident Richmond RCMP Sgt. Pierre Lemaitre told CBC Newsworld: "He was on his back, and being combative and still fighting. Even though he had received what they call pulses ... he was still out of control."

One problem. At the time, Lemaitre was unaware of the video footage that directly contradicted that statement. Dziekanski was immediately subdued after the first "pulse", and was not combative until after the "pulses" and when he was literally fighting for his life.

B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell has come out and apologized on behalf of the BC Government, but the story doesn't end there. On November 20th, a man in Chiliwack, BC "was wrestled, whacked by batons, pepper-sprayed and Tasered by Mounties (RCMP)" before he died four days later. Officers who spoke to the media said they "could not say how many times the Taser was used".

The Canada Border Services Agency (CSBA) - who lost Dziekanski for approximately six hours inside a secure area - released their ">report on the incident on Monday November 26. For their report, the CSBA "will beef up patrols and have more security checks and cameras at Vancouver's airport."

On Thursday, November 22, Howard Hyde, a 45 year old paranoid schizophrenic, was Tasered by members of the Halifax Regional Police after a violent confrontation. He died 30 hours later in the hospital. His death is still under investigation and the third in five weeks suspected to be related to the Taser.

A New Brunswick man died in 2005 after being Tasered by the RCMP so many times that the air smelled of burning flesh. "Medical experts said the multiple shocks - there were eight Taser wounds on Geldart, including three sets of marks on the back of his head - may have been a contributing factor to his death. But they insisted the cause of death was excited delirium - a state of agitated, exhaustive mania."

This story isn't confined to just the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. A Utah State Trooper is under investigation for a September 14th incident in which he used a Taser on a man at the side of the road who refused to sign his speeding ticket.

The vast majority of RCMP and CSBA officers do their job well. They put on the uniform each day and keep our neighborhoods safe. But they are not above the law, they must abide by their own rules and regulations when employing any sort of deadly or non-deadly force. The Taser is a dangerous weapon and must not be used lightly.

Heather Cook lives in Calgary, Alberta with her husband, a former U.S. Army officer, and two children. She can be found online at heather-cook.com.