Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The RCMP and the death of Robert Dziekanski

My cop friend in Penticton sent me this article tonight about the Robert Dziekanski incident. Dziekanski is the Polish man killed by police last month at the Vancouver airport, tasered at least twice, and subdued with a knee to the neck. The article, which is a Les MacPherson column from the Saskatoon Star Phoenix, is one of few to defend the RCMP in this case. However, whether these Mounties deserve defending or not, MacPherson's defence is poorly thought-out.

First, I must admit that I have not watched the video of Dziekanski's death. I saw Faces of Death in university and once was enough. For another thing, I've found it's best not to write in a state of moral outrage. So I am going only by media reports, and by what I've heard from people who have watched it. A former Vancouver policeman who watched the video told the CBC that the man made no threatening moves. The story that bothered me most was an interview on CBC Radio with the man who filmed the video, who said that Dziekanski seemed relieved to see the police, right up until they tasered up.

But, even then, there could be circumstances the video doesn't show, things that might reasonably have led the police to do what they did. I'm not second-guessing them, but I do say that they have to be called upon to explain themselves, and not just to other cops.

As long as police can use force to arrest people, a certain percentage of people getting arrested are going to get killed. That's force, and it's difficult to imagine a role for police who can't use it. But from all the media reports and from the description of the video, it is a fair question to ask whether the force was justified. Maybe it was, but how do we know unless there is a thorough investigation?

Also, there is a distinction between force and deadly force. Force is for people resisting arrest. Deadly force is for defending lives. I will leave it to the investigation and to better-informed people than I to determine whether this was supposed to be deadly force. Since the person who experienced the force is, in fact, now dead, I'd say the question should at least be on the table. But I've read no report that suggests any reason why the four cops who arrested Robert Dziekanski should have been in fear for their lives or the lives of others.

It's true that, as the newspaper article says, "For all (the police) knew at the time, he could have been high on illegal drugs, some of which are known to give a resistant suspect the strength of several men. For all they knew at the time, he could have had AIDS or hepatitis and a pocket full of needles."

But this one paragraph is the silliest in MacPherson's article. Because it's also true that, for all the police know, all those things could apply to everyone in the world. I have pockets. How do you know they're not full of AIDS-ridden needles? You don't. But you don't get to kill me because of the worst thing you can imagine might be in my pocket. You only get to kill me when I pull it out and try to stab you with it. Maybe that is a lot to ask for $60K a year. But that is, in fact, the job. The guns aren't just there to look cool.

The cops at that airport had to think a lot faster than I ever do, and I will feel sympathy for them if there's a proper investigation, not just a press statement from their superiors, that finally proves they did as they were supposed to. Actually, according to Wikipedia, which is never wrong, there are seven investigations going on right now, and two concluded. None of this scrutiny can be any fun for the policemen involved. But when people get killed in this country, scrutiny must follow. The police don't get the benefit of the doubt. Our perception of the police as just and upstanding cool-handed professionals is a distinctly first-world thing which depends on not giving them the benefit of the doubt.

We see cops as beneficial because we have rules that force them to be professionals. Sure, most of them don't need to be forced, but that's a result of rules too, rules about who gets to be a cop and who doesn't. I can understand how frustrating it must be to work under those rules and actually get anything done, but I'd still rather have the rules than just trust all cops to be good. Countries with that system end up with a payroll full of violent thugs. I think I've visited two or three. There are countries where people just wouldn't think of calling the police for any reason. If you've already got problems with one armed criminal, why call in eight more?

As much respect as I have for almost all the cops I know, I expect any police recruiter would agree that policing is a job to which violent thugs are drawn. Maybe they're not supposed to get in, but I bet most of my cop friends know one or two colleagues who slipped through the cracks. I'm not saying the four who killed Robert Dziekanski are such cops, but I am saying there needs to be a system to make sure they're not. However much of a pain in the ass that system is to them and to other cops, that's got to be part of the job too. If you want to imagine life without it, where cops are trusted to get the job done however they see fit, you have to think about places where that's the case, where nobody outside the government trusts cops, where people assume cops lie on the stand or just beat people for fun, and that few people arrested are actually guilty of anything.

- DB

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