Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Braidwood Inquiry begins hearing testimony from the four RCMP Constables involved in the Robert Dziekanski taser death

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)


  1. Mandy Cheema has done excellent work in interviewing people attending the Braidwood Inquiry. It might be helpful if LEAP's director encouraged the media pool there to post complete video each day since the transcripts being posted at the Inquiry website are on a five-day business cycle. Some reporters have commented on how awkward the physical setup is at the Inquiry and how hard it is to obtain high quality video. This is an area of practice, information management, that could be much improved in the court systems.

    A lot of time at the Inquiry has been spent on video, playing and replaying it and producing slow motion and stills. A lawyer for one of the RCMP officers tried today to initiate a discussion of some of 4,000 stills, but it turned out that they were of low quality. Amazingly, the Vancouver airport does not have high resolution seamless video (the video is of poor quality, and there are many gaps in the coverage), nor does there seem to be much interest in Canadian airports in PowerPhone, which would allow direct transmission of camera phone video to 911. If RCMP senior supervisors had been able to view video about Mr. Dziekanski in real time before the attending officers even reached the airport, the supervisors would surely have realized that wild statements being received about an intoxicated man breaking glass were inaccurate. They would have been able to gather that Mr. Dziekanski was distracted, but not dangerous. They would have been able to grasp from the audio that Mr. Dziekanski did not speak English.

    The federal government should immediately set standards for internal video and for PowerPhone at airports such as YVR, to ensure that the airports, CBSA, and the RCMP have superior coverage, and that the public is being served well. RCMP communications capacity should be such that attending officers could examine incoming camera phone video on their car computers and be given advice by supervisors before they blunder into situations they do not understand.

    It is clear from the low value placed on language by the officers who attended at YVR that they were not trained to be sensitive to linguistic issues, whether concerning their own team communications, or those with the public. Training for CBSA, RCMP, municipal, and provincial police should be modernized and standardized. In Vancouver, a good center for a full two-year joint cadet program would be at the main post office, 349 West Georgia, a huge and powerful building slated to be sold anyway. The cadet program should be fully integrated with university studies so that credits could be transferred to SFU criminology or UBC arts. In terms of such subjects as IT, linguistics, literature, and psychology, models of police training are hopelessly obsolete. CBSA training is laughable at best. Nine or eleven weeks of training would have to qualify as ludicrous.

    If we were just to examine the potential for employing "No Country For Old Men" and part 4 (about the crimes) of "2666," along with coverage from the El Paso Times and LA Times on cartels, we would see that police anticipation of what British Columbia could become in ten years or so is exceptionally weak.

    Canadian law schools could take some practical measures by September of 2009. LSAT should be rejected in favor of a mandatory national law school admissions test with a curriculum composed of "A Civil Action," "The Turn of the Screw," the Air-India judgment, the Braidwood Inquiry transcripts, and the best corpus tools for teaching English, for example. In both police and legal work, mechanistic approaches to cognitive issues prevail. At the Braidwood Inquiry, issues of word meanings have arisen repeatedly. I am not aware of any law school where there is a full understanding of how to employ corpus dictionaries such as the COBUILD Advanced Learner's English Dictionary or the Longman Advanced American Dictionary to help illuminate words. No matter whether it is PowerPhone or the COBUILD English Grammar, you will find in Canada that either we have not heard of the tools, or we do not know how to put them to good use.

    Such pervasive obsolescence bears heavy costs. Many police officers have a private system of intractable assumptions and "gut instincts," diminishing their capacity to function and mature into being the best officers they can be. In terms of systems, Canada is very slow at information uptake. If we find out that experts appearing in court are unreliable, that forensic sciences are in disarray, then we might expect long cycles of half-measures of reform in Canada, if there ever were frank admissions that the issues actually existed.

    What is evident at Braidwood is that communications systems at YVR and the RCMP are old-fashioned and resist change. And very few law or journalism students show up at the Inquiry to ask penetrating questions. Mandy Cheema has the right idea in initiating dialogue on the issues and writing intelligently about them.

  2. The British Columbia site notes: RCMP testify at Dziekanski inquiry: Watch live online: Mon Mar. 2 - Thu Mar. 5: 10 a.m.-12 p.m., 2-4:30 p.m.

    It will be interesting to see how many Canadian law school classes follow the video live. Students might also be interested in the letter in The Province newspaper today (Friday) by Staff-Sgt. Mike Ingles, RCMP Staff Relations Rep, E Division, South Fraser Zone. Ingles tacitly accepts that the responding officers relied on inflammatory comment to 911, and Ingles does not make useful suggestions for the adoption of PowerPhone as the core of 911 or for more effective RCMP communications training (what emerged from testimony last week is that one officer could be giving a command to a subject without another officer nearby even realizing that such a command was being given). Another important matter from last week is why the RCMP critical incident debriefing for the attending officers had been unknown to the inquiry up to that point.

    The failure of some Canadian law schools to focus on live developments is interfering with legal education. Despite the dozens of sections in the Josephson Air-India judgment that revealed lapses in collection and presentation of evidence, there has never been a comprehensive and exacting UBC analysis of the sections in the judgment with implications for the teaching of evidence (despite the involvement of the UBC law school professor of evidence I was directed to speak with in the aftermath).