As I write this post, the Braidwood Inquiry is hearing from RCMP Constable Gerry Rundel, one of the four RCMP officers involved in Robert Dziekanski's death. I am here on my law school reading week. This is a remarkable experience which has made it astonishingly clear to me the legislative reforms needed to ensure accountability from police officers.
On the possible role race played
On the first day of Rundel's testimony, Zofia Cisowski, could not bear to watch the video of her son’s final moments and ended up leaving and not returning. Constable Rundel described his initial response to the RCMP dispatch he received shortly before arriving at Vancouver International Airport. What is most troubling is the way the dispatcher described Mr. Dziekanski -- “a non-white male with dark hair wearing a white jacket.” What role did race play in the manner in which the RCMP responded? Was it routine to have four constables arrive separately in their police cruisers? Is it plausible to assume that the RCMP response was influenced, in part, by the moral panic that has gripped airports since 9/11 with its impact felt most prominently by those who loook Arab or Muslim? Constable Rundel did not testify as to whether the description by the dispatcher was communicated amongst the four RCMP officers before or when they converged at the airport.
Whether the description of “non-white male with dark hair” influenced their reaction remains to be seen. Although Commission Counsel raised this possibility, he did so subtly and did not make the link between what role, if any, race played that day at the airport. However, in raising that query, Commission Counsel introduced the possibility for that conclusion to be drawn.
On Constable Rundel’s justification
Perhaps what is even more astonishing is Constable Rundel’s justification for the taser. On numerous occasions, he repeatedly said that he feared for his safety. The cause of this fear? A stapler. It is difficult to believe that an RCMP officer (wearing a bullet-proof vest), trained and fully equipped with various tools, such as a baton, pepper spray, taser and firearm (not to mention the superb physical fitness of most police officers), would be afraid of a stapler- especially in the company of three equally equipped and trained RCMP officers. Surely, wearing a bullet-proof vest would ward off attacks by a stapler.
On the RCMP’s inconsistent position
Prior to Constable Rundel’s testimony, the RCMP maintained that Mr. Dziekanski made combative gestures holding the stapler before the taser was deployed. Constable Rundel further testified that Mr. Dziekanski was demonstrating “non-compliant” behaviour in raising his hands and not complying with RCMP orders. However, the video evidence does not show him raising his hands before the taser is deployed. The decision to taser was made within 4 seconds upon arriving and within thirty seconds, he was tasered five times. During this time, very little was done during the intervals to back off and give Mr. Dziekanski a chance to respond, nor was an effort made during this time to assess his medical situation. Moreover, Walter Kosteckyj’s questioning made it clear that Mr. Dziekanski had only raised his arms after being tasered- in all likelihood, as a natural response to the electric shock waves being sent through his body.
Constable Rundel admitted that Robert Dziekanski may have been frightened and felt trapped when the four RCMP officers surrounded him that day. Upon further questioning, he said there was no time to give Dziekanski a warning before the taser was deployed and admitted no attempt was made to find out where he was from or where he was going. However, he did not back down from maintaining that he and his colleagues acted properly.
On the language barrier
In response to Commission Counsel’s question as to whether the language barrier may have complicated communications, Constable Rundel did not acknowledge the possibility of a language barrier of a Polish immigrant coming to Canada for the very first time. For more on language barriers and law enforcement practices, see Vera Institute of Justice.
For up-to-date information visit the Braidwood Inquiry website.
Posted by Mandy Cheema (Windsor Law III)