An Open Letter to My MP: On the Death of Robert Dziekanski
Last night, I wrote the following letter to my own Member of Parliament (MP), M. Mauril Bélanger, and to a Senator I’m acquainted with, Sen. Sharon Carstairs of Manitoba, concerning the death of a visiting Polish citizen – now famous posthumously worldwide – Mr. Robert Dziekanski:
Dear Senator, M. Bélanger:
It’s likely to end up being one of the biggest police scandals in Canadian history – and rightly so. By now I’m sure you’ve both heard about the incident involving a Polish immigrant by the name of Robert Dziekanski who arrived at Vancouver airport about a month ago and was tasered by police, resulting in his apparent death. For me, the fact a taser is involved in the incident isn’t the most important issue. In fact, I remain of the view that tasers likely have a role in policing as a tool that can save lives when the alternative could be deadly force. But there are several other facts about the incident cited on tonight’s CBC’s The National’s news coverage which bear urgent consideration, and should be included in the list of questions posed in tomorrow’s question period (even being mindful of the pressing issue concerning the Mulroney-Schreiber affair). Particularly given how outraged I am that Canadian police could behave in such an extremely unsafe, prejudicial, dogmatic and possibly even criminal matter!
I should add before proceeding further outlining my concerns that I am supportive of police, generally. I understand they are human beings who are fallible and don’t necessarily hold police officers to the kind of “saintly” standards of behavior many in the public do. I understand policing is a difficult job, often demanding considerable personal sacrifice by those who choose policing as a career. (I’d even tolerate police officers retaining their job were they found guilty of drug possession, for example – provided they were still held to the same account as any ordinary citizen.)
When I first heard about this incident back in October, I figured Mr. Dziekanski likely contributed substantially to his own fate by behaving aggressively. This was before I saw the video for the first time tonight. However, in the video, it’s very apparent that while Dziekanski is frightened and agitated (given he doesn’t speak either English or French), he was certainly being disorderly – but not threatening anyone, nor doing anything that might cause anyone harm. He was damaging airport property, but had stopped that behavior by the time police arrived on-scene. Why the police suddenly pulled out a taser is beyond me. Several years ago I worked as a security guard at Portage Place shopping mall in the core of downtown Winnipeg where incidents of comparable disorderliness occurred frequently. Had I been armed with a taser, there is simply no way it would occur to me to use it as the very first tool to try to calm an agitated suspect down! When media were asking questions of an RCMP spokesman immediately after the incident back in October, he reported that officers tried to gesture to Dziekanski to calm down. At best, this was an exaggeration. It might well be called an outright lie, watching the video. It seems clear the RCMP tried to mislead the public about what happened immediately after the story broke.
Another serious issue for me concerns the video itself – just getting out to the media now. The video was initially taken by the RCMP, according to its owner. Officers promised the owner that the video and camera would both be returned, but shortly after the incident, the RCMP refused to return either. Indeed, they declined after numerous requests to get the camera and video back – and only relented when legal action was taken by the owner!
I assume both of you have seen the segment I’m discussing here, and I think the issues that arise from the incident itself concerning the use of extreme force by the officers is obvious. I also think it’s obvious that all of the officers involved need to lose their jobs over this issue! They not only used excessive force, but made absolutely no attempt to revive Dziekanski when he lost consciousness, nor were medical personnel called when it became clear he wasn’t breathing and had no pulse. But beyond that, a few more heads need to roll over the refusal by the agency to yield the camera and video when it was voluntarily offered to aid with the investigation – not to assist officers with what certainly bears all the markings of an attempted cover-up.
While the Conservatives themselves aren’t responsible for this incident, they are the government and need to take decisive action with respect to this incident. This is a free and democratic society, where people’s rights need to be observed. Since moving to eastern Ontario from Winnipeg a few years back, I’ve had one or two encounters with police myself wherein officers seemed to act a little heavy-handed. (In one case I took the matter to court and won my case – a minor issue involving wrongful suspicion that I was driving without auto insurance, and was smuggling drugs in my car, which I was not.) In such extreme cases, it’s absolutely necessary for consequences to prevail so that the police are reminded that they aren’t above the law – a fact that seems to slip the minds of a few of them now and again. And the public needs some reassurance their police aren’t going to take extreme measures as the very first course in an encounter with them – particularly over a minor misunderstanding or an initial breakdown in communication.
I am outraged by the police, their use of excessive force in this incident, their attempt to mislead the public about the particulars of the incident, an apparent attempt to sweep it under the rug, and with the unlawful seizure of an innocent citizen’s property who was trying to help with the investigation. I’m outraged with immigration and airport officials; with their apparent laziness, unkindness and rigid, unyielding observance of procedure, unwilling to let Dziekanski’s mother into the secure area to look for her son (just a few meters away from the immigration desk), which could have avoided all this trouble in the first place. I’m outraged by the comments of the airport spokesperson who said he doesn’t think the airport has nothing to be embarrassed or ashamed about – citing 16 million passengers being processed “incident-free” (yet another bald-faced exaggeration). And I’m outraged that a human being was killed over so many people being so tragically automatic, incompetent, belligerent and just plain stupid.
Please reflect this outrage as my representative – the outrage that reflects our fundamental rights being so completely attacked. If it could happen to Dziekanski, it seems possible it could happen to any Canadian in slightly different circumstances, unless something is done to see that it doesn’t!
Your consideration, as always, is appreciated.
— Signed, Ross Holder, 11/15/2007 12:43 a.m.
I write letters to my politicians as much as a dozen times a year, as a means of ensuring my views are to whatever limited degree reflected in the halls of power. Although there’s always the ballot box at election time for this, writing allows me to expand on some of the other thoughts and motivations of my view and perhaps, in some small way, occasionally helps those that govern us make better-informed decisions. But this time, I was motivated by something else: pure unmitigated outrage.
Every Canadian I heard on talk radio this morning driving to work said the same thing. It appears that the theme of outrage was very common indeed. And thank goodness for that! Because, if you’ve read any of the articles posted here in the past – you know I’ve had an encounter or two in the past decade with police that seemed worthy of complaint. And in each case, the resulting litigation was in my favour.
This incident says something about that trend, taken to a much more serious extreme. Police everywhere have a difficult job – Canada is no different. Keeping large populations of ornery human beings is very difficult. But there seems to be an unfortunate tendency for bullies (for lack of a better term) to infiltrate the ranks of police and cause problems like this.
I suggested in the above letter that "heads need to roll", but actually the consequences of this incident must go much further than a few officers losing their jobs. These officers need to be held criminally responsible for manslaughter.
Even more shocking is the ongoing trumpeting of (and this needs to be emphasized) a minority of serving and police alumnae. Even the RCMP had the audacity today to come before journalists and suggest that we can’t pass judgement based on what we’re seeing quite clearly through the lens of a nearby camera! This is the same agency that lied to the media about several aspects of the circumstances around this incident initially – and tried to withhold the camera and its media from the owner who obviously wanted to sell the content to journalists. To those of you who are of this view, I say this plainly: we’re not bloody stupid! Obviously there are other pieces of evidence to consider! But certain suspicions are very reasonable given what the camera recording shows and to automatically fault people for their justifiable complaint, concern and even outrage on what was obviously an incident that involved some degree of misconduct is itself outrageous. I suggest to any police officer reading this – you would be lying to us were you to suggest that if film of similar misconduct by a group of non-police conducting an assault wouldn’t stimulate similar outrage in your own mind. You want us to shut our eyes and be blind to what happened because you’re police officers? Because you have a tough and dangerous job? Ridiculous! Not only could a just society never operate that way, it wouldn’t be ethical. And if you have a problem with that view, maybe you should reconsider who it is you’re actually working for – the people – and that you’ve sworn to protect their rights. It doesn’t matter if they’re being disorderly or not. Nor if they’re mentally ill. Violation of an individual’s rights isn’t acceptable. And one need not be an officer of the law (with or without the sanctimonious "you can’t understand if you’re not a cop" attitude) to comprehend that basic fact.
Indeed the repetition of such nonsense by members of law enforcement does little more than re-enforce the prevailing view of the public that our police need retraining. Or something. ‘Cuz this isn’t acceptable.