TORONTO — The unofficial motto of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police is that the force always gets its man. But the tactics used in the name of catching bad guys have repeatedly tarnished the image of Canada’s national police.
Some of the worst offenses date to the 1970s, when the RCMP targeted groups that wanted to make the province of Quebec an independent country. The force's actions included the burning of a barn where separatists were to meet, as well as some 400 illegal break-ins.
The RCMP went on to bungle the investigation of the 1985 Air India plane bombing that killed 329 passengers — the worst mass murder in Canadian history.
More recently, it wrongly characterized Canadian Mahr Arar as a possible extremist with ties to Al Qaeda. That resulted in U.S. authorities rendering Arar to Syria in 2002, where he was tortured. The Canadian government has since apologized and awarded Arar $8 million for his ordeal.
In December 2006, Giuliano Zaccardelli resigned as the RCMP’s commissioner after admitting he misled a parliamentary committee about his involvement in the Arar case. Some also suspected Zaccardelli of having used an investigation to meddle in the 2006 federal elections and help defeat the Liberal Party government.
So it comes as no surprise to most Canadians that yet another inquiry into the actions of the RCMP is being held, this time in the Pacific Coast province of British Columbia. It’s focused on the almost surreal final hours of Robert Dziekanski, a Polish immigrant who died after he was zapped five times with an RCMP Taser gun.
Dziekanski, a 41-year-old construction worker, landed at Vancouver’s international airport on Oct. 13, 2007. He came to start a new life with his mother, Zofia Cisowski, who had been living in British Columbia for several years. It was the first time he had stepped on a plane, and he didn’t speak English.
As his mother waited outside the airport arrivals area, Dziekanski wandered lost and disoriented in the secure customs and immigration section for an incredible 10 hours. He had several interactions with airport and customs officials. Cisowski, meanwhile, asked airport staff to search for her son. The short of it is no one cared enough to help.
Her son was eventually cleared through customs and immigration and officially became a Canadian resident. But his mother by then had left, assuming he had never arrived. What happened next was captured in frightening detail by a passerby with a video cell phone.
Sleep-deprived, dehydrated and sweating, Dziekanski is seen pacing in the arrivals section, throwing a chair against a pane of glass and smashing a desktop computer. That finally got him the attention of authorities.
Four RCMP officers surround Dziekanski, who, in Polish, tells them to “leave me alone.” He then throws up his hands, palms out as though to surrender, shrugs and walks a few feet away. He picks up a stapler from a desk and is looking at the four officers, hands at his side, when one zaps him with the Taser’s 50,000-volt electrical pulse. He falls, screaming in pain.
On the floor, while Dziekanski shouts, “police, police,” they zap him four more times while cuffing him. He turns blue and dies moments later. In all, he was jolted with electricity for 31 seconds. The first jolt came within 20 seconds of police confronting him.
An autopsy concluded Dziekanski died of “sudden death following restraint.” It found no alcohol or drugs in his system. No criminal charges have been brought against the officers.
Two of the four officers have so far testified at the inquiry. They insisted Dziekanski adopted a “combative stance,” and described feeling seriously threatened by the stapler he held.
The testimony has given more ammunition to critics who accuse the RCMP and local police forces of being Taser-happy. In northern Ontario, for example, a 14-year-old aboriginal girl was arrested for underage drinking and then tasered for picking at the paint in the holding facility.
Amnesty International says 25 people have died after being zapped in Canada, including 11 after RCMP officers used the weapon. An estimated 300 people have died after being tasered in the U.S.
The Arizona-based manufacturer of the shock gun, Taser International, said in a recent statement that its weapon is “the proven safer response to resistance compared to any other use-of-force tool. We stand by the safety of our devices as shown by the substantial volume of Taser research.”
But critics insist that much of the company’s research has not been peer reviewed by independent experts. The CBC news network recently commissioned tests on 41 Tasers and found that four of them delivered significantly more electrical current than Taser International maintained was possible.
Two weeks ago, RCMP Commissioner William Elliott did an about-face, admitting for the first time that firing a Taser poses a risk of death, “particularly for acutely agitated individuals.” RCMP training and policies have been changed to make that clear, he added.
RCMP officers are now prohibited from using Tasers against people in the throes of what police call “excited delirium.” Taser use must be “reasonable” in circumstances were the alternative is to fire a gun.
For Dziekanski, the immigrant with dreams of a new life in Canada, the changes have come too late.
Read more from Canada: