Prime Time Crime

(Prime Time Crime exclusive Nov. 20, 2007)

The Incident

By Gary Cameron



Like the ancient camp followers who used to come down from the hills after a battle to finish off the wounded and loot the bodies, Canadian media outlets have used the tragic death of Robert Dziekanski to manufacture another Rodney King franchise.

Let me explain. For those who don't remember, Rodney King was an impaired driver on parole for robbery who was involved in a harrowing pursuit through Los Angeles at speeds up to 115 miles per hour. As was the case with the airport incident, some of the arrest was caught on tape. King resisted arrest, attacked the officers and attempted to grab the weapon of one officer at the scene at the start of the altercation, most of which was not recorded. King continued to resist even after being tasered, tackled, and struck with batons. The tape in its entirety tended to support the police version of what occurred but most people never saw it. Instead, only the most damning excerpts from the video of this arrest were played non-stop around the world until everyone believed the media's version of what happened, even before all the evidence was revealed and the investigation was completed. The man who videotaped the incident got rich, King became a multimillionaire, some of the police officers involved had their lives ruined, and the media dined off this event until their reckless handling of the story helped incite the LA race riots of 1992 that resulted in 50-60 deaths, 2000 injuries and about a billion dollars in damages.

The media's rush to judgment on the Dziekanski matter is staggeringly cynical. Excerpts from the tape have now made their way around the world to the delight of "snuff film" aficionados, accompanied by various media-generated descriptions ranging from "disturbing" all the way to "murder" and "execution" that, needless to say, tend to color the public's perception of the tape. The same media outlets who routinely lecture us about the importance of robbers, murderers and terrorists being afforded their civil liberties and their right to a free and impartial trial seem to have decided that it's okay to make vile and disgusting accusations against police officers involved in incidents that end tragically without providing a shred of evidence to back them up. Had one of the officers been killed in the struggle instead, the story would have pretty much died a few days after his or her funeral.

No one in the media has bothered to look at this from a police perspective, as usual, since any attempt to add balance to the "conventional wisdom" of this story would quickly expose its misrepresentations and render it just another tragic in-custody death that requires nothing more than the usual investigation and subsequent inquest. Of course routine police-involved deaths (at least those that weren't taped) don't generate international media coverage, or guarantee the kind of ratings or circulation that generate revenues for the news outlet, or the kind of recognition and awards that media outlets and reporters crave. 

Here's an alternative version of events you won't see elsewhere, and while (like the media) I have only seen what's on the tape, I believe it shows something entirely different from the story the media have fabricated. The four airport Mounties who approached Dziekanski would have been told only that a very large man had gone berserk, was acting irrationally, was making threatening gestures to bystanders while holding a chair over his head, and was damaging airport property. They had no way of knowing where he had spent the last few hours, and we now know he wasn't just self-exiled in the secure area of the airport; he could have retrieved a weapon from his baggage or, for all they knew, carried one into the airport with him. They had no way of knowing why he was acting irrationally, but they did have a responsibility to take this person into custody for his own safety, prevent the situation from escalating and make certain that no innocent bystanders are hurt in the process.

It's safe to assume that Dziekanski recognized the Mounties as police officers because he apparently yelled "Policja" at them as he (according to the tape) appeared to pick up a wicked-looking object (a stapler?) and threaten them with it, instead of calming down and cooperating with them, as most of us would have done under the circumstances. Why did he act this way? The explanation may well be found buried in a recent Vancouver Sun news story. The media have portrayed this man as a bumbling, innocent waif who simply got upset because he felt abandoned. However, if we believe the Sun, Dziekanski had "...drinking problems and had a troubled past, which included a five-year jail sentence for robbery..." He had obviously already had extensive dealings with the police in Poland and whether he spoke English or not, he would have known that his behavior was, to put it mildly, unacceptable.

I've watched the tape and I can't see anything out of the ordinary with respect to the actions of those four police officers. They used the Taser on him when he threatened them, something that has been done thousands of times over the years, almost always without resulting in death or injury to the suspect.  When Dziekanski continued to resist arrest, they sought to control him by restraining him while they handcuffed him, and this same process has been done millions of times, again almost always without harming the suspect. As far as I can tell, the officers did nothing unusual or wrong during this incident. At the very least we should wait until after all the evidence is entered at the inquest before condemning them for doing nothing more than their duty.

Now that politicians are involved, there's a distinct possibility that the careers of police members at the bottom of the food chain will be sacrificed in order to placate the public's need for closure. This would be a grotesque miscarriage of justice, and must not be allowed to happen.

The Consequences

How does the current media campaign to destroy the reputations of these police officers affect us all? There are serious consequences when the media decide to scapegoat and persecute police officers.

Here's an example. We've all seen dramatic media coverage of incidents where police cars speeding to calls or involved in high speed pursuits have crashed. Sometimes these accidents result in death or injury to police officers, suspects or even innocent citizens in the wrong place at the wrong time.  At the very least this kind of thing is extremely traumatic for the officer involved, especially when an innocent citizen is the victim. These days, however, it's becoming more and more common for the officers to face criminal or motor vehicle act charges when things go wrong, and this could potentially result in them losing their jobs, or even going to jail. As a result of all the media attention, there are very few high speed pursuits that arenít called off within seconds nowadays, which means that criminals are pretty much free to do whatever they want in their stolen cars until they crash or run out of gas.

However, there's an unintended side effect of this trend that most citizens probably don't know about. If you asked people how fast police officers should be allowed to drive during pursuits or while attending calls, most would say they should generally not exceed the posted limits, even with lights and sirens, because obviously any higher speeds would be dangerous, hence the law regulating speed limits. If a police officer does speed on his way to a call, and then kills an innocent person in an accident, most people would probably say that the police officer should be charged with an offence. Some would go so far as to say that they should be fired, or jailed.

On the other hand, confront them with a hypothetical situation where they, or someone they love, is home alone, and has called 911 to report that a maniac with a weapon in his hand is kicking down their door. The nearest police car is five minutes away if it travels a safe, legal speed, but the complainant will probably be dead if help doesn't arrive in half that time. Under these circumstances, ask them how fast they think the police should travel to their call for assistance? It's a little different when the life at stake is yours, or that of a loved one, isn't it?

Here's a dirty little secret for you. When I was a police officer in Vancouver back in the seventies and eighties, we were often faced with manpower shortages, just as today's cops are. Consequently, most of us regularly drove faster than the speed limit, with or without lights and sirens, to get to calls where we thought people were in trouble and needed our help. If we hadn't broken the speed limit, many of these calls would have turned out very differently because we were their only hope. If you've ever been in imminent danger, you'll understand how important it is to get the help you need in a timely fashion. A minute can mean the difference between a cop arriving in time to arrest a suspect before he has a chance to kill or injure an innocent victim, or a cop who gets there after the action is over and ends up taking an assault or a murder report.

Nobody ordered us to speed, and the law offered precious little support when something did go wrong in the process. We did it out of a sense of duty and honor, simply because we believed in the Job and learned to live with the fact that if something did go wrong, we'd probably be in a world of trouble even though we were confident that our actions were justified by the circumstances. Had we traveled at the speed limit instead, no supervisor would have reprimanded us for not getting to the call quicker, and the victims, or their next of kin, would never have known why they didn't get help in time to prevent a tragedy.

Now put yourself in the shoes of the police officer assigned to this kind of call. They've seen how cops who get involved in controversial incidents are pilloried in the press, threatened with legal consequences, and occasionally face the possibility of going to jail or losing their jobs, even though they honestly believe they've done nothing wrong. If you were a police officer with a family to support and a mortgage to pay, knowing the consequences should you decide to break the law and exceed the speed limit in order to help somebody in danger, exactly how fast would you travel to an urgent call for assistance?

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