gary mason: rcmp must answer for taser death

Globe and Mail columnist Gary Mason writes:
I feel sick today for Zofia Cisowski.

Ms. Cisowski is the mother of Robert Dziekanski, the 40-year-old Polish man who died in the early morning hours last Sunday, shortly after RCMP fired barbed hooks into his body, along with 50,000 volts of electricity.

I watched an interview with Ms. Cisowski this week on Global BC and it was one of the saddest things I've ever seen. She talked about how she'd worked two jobs for several years to save enough money for her son to move to Canada. Last Sunday he was finally making the long trek from Pieszyce, Poland, to start a new life in Canada with his mother.

Ms. Cisowski drove four hours from her home in Kamloops to meet her son's flight at the airport. He was scheduled to touch down around 3:30 in the afternoon. But 3:30 came and went without any sign of him, then 4:30 and 5:30 and 6:30.

She appealed to airport officials to look for him. She was concerned he'd become lost and wouldn't be able to ask for help because he didn't speak English. By 10 o'clock, she gave up hope that her son would emerge from behind the glass doors of the international arrival area and returned home.

The next day she would learn he was dead.

"I want to be with him now," Ms. Cisowski cried in broken English. "He must be here, not in God's room.

"Very soon I was going to realize my son's hug. I was smiling nicely because I would meet my son soon. My boy, my boy, how does this happen? I was there waiting for him. He was waiting, too, but he wait too many hours alone by himself. No language, no English, no food, no water.

"He didn't see me," Ms. Cisowski said, continuing to sob. "I didn't see him. I'm so sad."

No one can be unmoved by Ms. Cisowski's lament. Her grief is so palpable. Here is a woman whose nesting instinct compelled her to make enormous personal sacrifice to help out her child, now having to deal with an unimaginable loss, one made even more tragic and heartbreaking by the senseless circumstances surrounding it.

Almost a week after the fact, I still don't understand, or accept, the decisions made by the RCMP to bring Ms. Cisowski's son down in the manner in which it did.

Here is what we know: For some reason Mr. Dziekanski was wandering around the Vancouver International Airport at one o'clock in the morning, apparently lost and visibly upset. He began throwing things, hitting windows and yelling in Polish. Someone called the police.

Three RCMP officers arrived at 1:30 a.m., encountered the distraught man and quickly tasered him. He would die minutes later.

Witness accounts of what happened are at odds with the RCMP's version of events. For instance, the police have said they fired their stun guns twice, while a woman standing nearby distinctly recalls the sound of four taser blasts hitting the man. The RCMP has said its officers didn't use mace or pepper spray to subdue the man because the airport was too crowded. However, Lorne Meltzer, a corporate valet who called the RCMP in the first place, said that's not true. Mr. Meltzer told an interviewer the "place was empty" - which wouldn't be a surprise given what time it was.

Mr. Meltzer, who witnessed the incident, has come to the same conclusion many of us have: The police were too hasty in using their tasers. He'd told police the man didn't speak English and yet the officers evidently only twice issued a quick command in English - "put your hands on the desk" - before using their stun guns.

Mr. Meltzer says Mr. Dziekanski was waving a stapler around in a threatening manner - a stapler. And yet three RCMP officers and airport security couldn't subdue him without using a taser gun? Come on. With the help of a couple of my old high school buddies from Sarnia, I could have subdued this guy - without mace or a baton.

Given the potentially deadly consequences of taser use, why would the RCMP officers in this case spend so little time trying to figure out what Mr. Dziekanski's problem was? In some cases, police will spend hours and hours negotiating with someone holed up in a home threatening suicide, and yet in this case RCMP didn't spend more than two minutes negotiating with a clearly distraught foreigner brandishing nothing more than a stapler.

Of course, this being an in-custody death, the RCMP will once again be investigating themselves. I'm going to go out on a limb here and predict the officers who tasered Mr. Dziekanski will be exonerated. Just following procedure and all that.

My heart breaks for Zofia Cisowski.

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