[Just one week after releasing his astonishing rationale for police brutality,
government lawyer Stan Lowe was appointed
B.C.’s new Police Complaint Commissioner.]

It’s easier to blame
Robert Dziekanski

Les Leyne, Victoria Times-Colonist, Dec. 13, 2008

Analyze the encounter any way you like. Push all the blame as far away from the RCMP as you can. Heap all the suspicions you want on Robert Dziekanski’s stability and character.

The central fact remains: He did not have to die the way he did at Vancouver airport on Oct. 14, 2007.

That point gets glossed over in the long-awaited criminal justice branch report on the notorious Taser death that was video-recorded and shown around the world.

Except you can’t call it a “Taser death” any more. The report concludes that the multiple tasering of the distraught, deranged man — five times, much more than first thought — had little to do with his death.

“The forensic pathologist concluded that Mr. Dziekanski’s death was a result of ’Sudden Death Following Restraint.’ He found no definite cause of death, which is typical of these types of incidents.”

That wishy-washy label — “Sudden Death Following Restraint” — sounds like the name of the file into which officials slot cases where they have no idea what went wrong. Yet the one thing they seem sure of is that it wasn’t the Taser that killed him.

“In the pathologist’s opinion, the use of the Taser did not directly cause the cardiac arrest.”

The report is very cleverly constructed and it seems to reflect what happened to the case in the 13 months it was under investigation. It became all about the Taser, rather than about the overall situation: A man dropped dead in police custody moments after a fairly violent altercation with them.

Zooming the focus in on the Taser made it a very specific, narrowly defined issue. Did the Taser kill him or not? Once they declared it did not, the likelihood of criminal charges against the police diminished greatly.

There are two problems with yesterday’s decision. The first is that it has been partially overtaken by events. The independent technical analysis of Tasers commissioned by CBC News makes it clear you can’t believe anything anybody says about the units. Their performance and output is all over the map. The report itself said Dziekanski was initially tasered three times in a row because the unit appeared to be malfunctioning. Any pronouncements about Tasers need to be treated skeptically.

The second is that the tight focus minimizes the rest of the picture. Four police officers called to deal with a large erratic man piled on to him and subdued him in very short order, and he died very shortly after. Take the Taser out of the situation entirely for a hypothetical moment. It’s still a case of a takedown that left a man dead. Why did that happen?

It’s interesting how the pathologists, once the Taser was discounted, reached for other fatal factors. Heart disease due to chronic alcoholism, delirium, alcohol withdrawal, the stress of physical restraint worsened by the Taser and “a decreased ability to breath as a result of being restrained” were cited. But they were cited as exculpatory alternative explanations to the idea that the Taser killed him.

If he was choked to death by a knee to the neck rather than tasered, why is that of lesser significance?

Two other “medical experts” went even further to excuse the police. They speculated Dziekanski was exhibiting “delirium prior to death,” explained by alcohol withdrawal, lack of sleep, dehydration and anxiety.

That suggests Dziekanski would have dropped dead all on his own even if the Mounties hadn’t shown up. To my amateur ear, that sounds like utter nonsense. It reaches a level of blame-shifting that is almost as frantic as Dziekanski’s behaviour was.

The decision subtly advances the notion that Dziekanski brought it on himself. They went all the way to Poland to find evidence he was “panicked, hysterical and fearful” before the first airplane trip of his life. They found abundant evidence he was “bizarre and threatening” after his 21-hour journey and nine mysterious hours in the airport processing maze. He had a furniture-throwing fit and was described variously as “aggressive, crazy, enraged, delusional, freaking out, on drugs and intoxicated.”

But still, he was surrounded by police with other officials nearby when he started acting up again. And he was armed only with a stapler.

The one definitive medical finding was that the autopsy found no drugs or alcohol in his system. But even that is used against him — as evidence that alcohol withdrawal might have been affecting him.

It’s a lot easier to blame a dead, unstable, foreign alcoholic for this horror than a well-lawyered police force that’s very good at looking out for its own.