Dziekanski inquiry: The stapler defense

Robert Dziekanski’s death-by-taser is back in the news today, as RCMP Constable Gerry Rundel appeared at the inquiry in Vancouver.

The CBC says that Rundel justified using the taser based on Dziekanski’s ‘combative behaviour’. Attached to the article is a photograph of Rundel demonstrating the alleged combative behaviour: he’s standing there with his hands in the air. Now, I know that one photograph, selected by the news service, cannot be taken as clear evidence of anything, but it seems to me that the police stereotype is to shout things like “put your hands in the air or I’ll shoot”. Did Rundel defy tradition and yell “put your hands down or I’ll shoot”?

The article says that “Rundel described Dziekanski as unkempt, sloppily dressed, with matted hair”. If that constitutes criteria for tasering, every skateboarder in town, not to mention everyone getting off the red-eye flight from Sydney after Mardi Gras, had better hide, and fast, if they see an RCMP cruiser headed their way.

I have a vague memory of when tasers were first introduced, but I remember police forces justifying them by explaining that tasers are intended as a non-lethal alternative to shooting someone with a firearm. That they would be used when necessary to save people from being killed.

According to Amnesty International, at least 17 people have died from being tasered in the past five years in Canada. In the US, it’s more like 200. Clearly, use of the taser is no guarantee against killing someone, and that it’s too dangerous to be used liberally instead of more benign techniques of conflict management.

If the inquiry into Dziekanski’s entirely unnecessary death comes to any other conclusion than that the RCMP and other police forces (and other “security organisations” that may be using them) must restrict their use of the taser strictly to situations in which an officer would seriously consider shooting a suspect with his or her firearm, then it’s a useless PR circle-jerk that benefits a few lawyers and little else.

By all accounts so far, Constable Rundel, along with three other officers, caused Robert Dziekanski to die because they felt threatened when he “lifted the stapler in an aggressive manner”. That does not sound even remotely like the kind of situation in which a police officer would consider drawing his firearm, in which case it seems completely unacceptable that the taser was used once, let alone the five times that Dziekanski was zapped. If the inquiry finds otherwise, and does not initiate some serious reforms to the use of tasers, none of us are safe.

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