Outrage Over Taser Death
Speaking outside the Vancouver public enquiry into her son’s death, Zofia Cisowska, mother of Robert Dziekański, stated that she has “lost faith” in the Canadian justice system and wants the British Columbia government to appoint a special prosecutor to re-examine the events that led to the tragedy.
On his arrival in Vancouver airport on 14th October 2007, Robert Dziekański, 40, had been travelling for 24 hours from his home in Gliwice to start a new life in Canada where his mother had emigrated to eight years earlier. He spoke and read no English and spent the next 10 hours lost in Vancouver airport while his mother searched for him frantically in another part of the building. Four Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers were called when Dziekański became frustrated and started to throw furniture around. After 25 seconds they shot him five times with a Taser gun. The public inquiry heard that he then spent a critical 10 minutes handcuffed face down and unconscious, without oxygen or first aid, and that by the time paramedics arrived on the scene, he was lifeless and couldn’t be revived. A bystander recorded the whole incident in a graphic nine-minute video.
The news and video sent shockwaves through both Canada and the Polish community. In December 2008, the investigation by the provincial Integrated Homicide Investigation Team, which includes members of several municipal police forces, announced that it had decided not to charge the four officers.
The public enquiry into the safety of Tasers and the death of Robert Dziekański was postponed twice because the RCMP had declined to participate until Crown Counsel had made a decision whether to lay criminal charges against the officers involved, but it finally started in May 2008 regardless. In January 2009 it began to look into the specific incidents of 14 October 2007 and heard testimony from several witnesses including airline staff, passengers flying with Dziekański, his friends from Poland and emergency response personnel. In mid-April 2009, the testimonies of the four RCMP officers were heard.
Perhaps not surprisingly, RCMP lawyers attempted to paint a picture of Dziekański as a dangerous man who had caused the officers to fear for their safety. They presented autopsy results that suggested he was an alcoholic, but witnesses told the inquiry that Dziekański was only a social drinker and was rarely, if ever, seen drunk, and the autopsy found no traces of alcohol or drugs in his body. They brought up past legal problems, but the inquiry heard that while he had some troubles with the law as a teen, these did not result in a criminal record. In any case, Canadian immigration authorities would have conducted a criminal record check before allowing him into Canada.
Friends and family of Robert Dziekański spoke of a quiet man whose hobbies included playing chess and bridge with friends and working on his allotment. By the time he left for Canada he was mostly doing odd jobs or heavy labour, relying on the money his mother sent home from Canada. He planned to learn English when he arrived, find a job, and travel across Canada to see the places he had only read about in the many books and atlases he had collected.
A friend from Gliwice gave the enquiry a vivid insight into Dziekański’s state of mind when he spoke via audiolink about how he had found him in a state of panic when he arrived to take him to the airport to catch his fateful flight. He was clinging to the radiator and it was only when he spoke to his mother on the speakerphone that he calmed down enough to be taken to the airport. Passengers and airline attendants on Dziekański’s flight told the inquiry he was peaceful and mostly sleeping during the flight. Likewise, airport staff said he was confused but otherwise calm and co-operative. He became agitated on clearing immigration and an argument with a limousine driver.
Cisowska told reporters that the police investigation into what happened was too focused on what her son did, rather than the actions of the officers. “So far, the inquiry revealed that the RCMP and the Criminal Justice (Branch) had only one thing in mind, which is to blame my son for his death,” said Cisowska. “I have lost faith in Canadian justice.”
The Attorney General of British Columbia and Crown prosecutors have said they would need new evidence from homicide investigators before they would re-examine the case, but Cisowska questioned whether the RCMP can be trusted to investigate itself.
A Taser is a weapon that uses an electrical current to force the victim’s muscles and nerves to contract involuntary. The use of Tasers is controversial and linked to a growth in the number of deaths by organisations such as Amnesty International, despite industry claims that it is a safe and non-lethal means of restraint. The use of Tasers in Canada is restricted to law enforcement agencies, while in Poland and 43 U.S. states they are not classed as firearms and no special permission is needed to buy and carry one.
An online petition demanding a special prosecutor for the Dziekański case has already gathered 10,000 signatures.
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