Saturday, November 17, 2007

When the Real World Comes Calling

Blechta writing -- and completely out of turn. My apologies for stepping on my colleagues' toes!

Being a writer of fiction, I have the luxury of arranging everything in my stories just the I want. Characters have to do what I say.

A situation in the real world imposed itself on me this week in a way no things have since 2001 and what it is a very hard thing to back away from or forget about -- and I can't tell any of the characters of this drama what they should do.

I'm speaking about the death last month of a traveller from Poland at the Vancouver airport. Many of you will have seen the video shot by a member of the public who was on the scene. If you haven't, make it your business to watch it. It might well make you sick, but it is something you need to see. Click HERE if you want to see it. I caution you that the content is disturbing.

Being the news junkie I am, I have been following the story from the beginning and took a special interest when the RCMP (the fabled Mounties to those of you not in Canada) suddenly refused to return the video the owner had given them voluntarily at the time of the incident to aid in the investigation. Being a crime writer, my antennae began to twitch at that. A lawyer was hired and the video was reluctantly returned this week. To say the least, its contents are explosive.

I've read at least 50 articles and interviews on the matter this week, and the one glaring thing that cries out to me is that the RCMP cannot be trusted anymore. If this video had not been shot, returned and then publicly disseminated, the Mounties present that night might well have gotten away with what they did.

In a news conference shortly after the event -- and presumably after the video had been viewed and initial statements of the Mounties present had been read -- the RCMP spokesman lied. There is no nicer way to put it. This constable would not have been allowed to stand up in front of the press if he had not been thoroughly briefed. Here are some facts.

He said:
* there were only 3 constables present (there were 4)
* that the constables were experienced officers and tried to calm the man down (they clearly did not)
* that he continued to resist them and throw things around the baggage area where he was (he did not)
* that after he was tasered, he continued to resist (he was clearly convulsing -- as people who have been shot by a taser do)
* that he was restrained by pressure on his back (you can clearly see one Mountie with his knee and what looks like the full weight of his body on the man's neck)
* the Mounties couldn't use pepper spray because of members of the public nearby (they were several feet away behind a glass wall and in another room).

I am equally certain that the Mounties didn't go into that enclosed area intending to kill this man. It was late, we have no idea what they'd been told by airport security (who seem to have made no attempt to communicate with this man), but we also do now know that the man was tasered barely 25 seconds after the Mounties entered the room and they didn't appear to try very hard to engage this man.

My feeling upon viewing the video numerous times is that the constables just wanted to get the situation over as quickly as possible and went with what they felt was the most expedient thing. Tasers are very powerful weapons, just a step down from using a gun and they have already, in limited use, been a factor in 30 deaths here in Canada. The RCMP is surely aware of this. To cut to the chase, the constables present that night chose the easy way out. They failed in their duty.

Police and the military are the only members of our society whom we legally allow to use deadly force. That is a very fragile and tenuous right and is subject to any number of checks and balances. It also carries an awesome amount of responsibility.

In this case, the Mounties did not act with proper responsibility. These are some of the most well-trained law enforcement people in the world. They should have known better. The DID know better. Now they (and all of us) are left with the horrendous consequences of their precipitant behaviour. They have wrongly taken the life of a man who had already been shamefully treated for over 8 hours by the country that should have helped him through the maze of Customs and Immigration that every airport now has. Every official of the Canadian government with whom Robert Dziekanski came into contact that fateful evening failed in their duty to him -- and their country, since they represent every one of us. The world is outraged, as well they should be.

But on top of all this, it now appears that the Mounties, our fabled national police force who always "gets its man", attempted to lie to Canada and the rest of the world.

I am ashamed for my country.


Charles benoit said...

Ashamed for the whole country just for that? Come on, Rick, you used to be a citizen of the US. You should be used to it by now.

Rick Blechta said...

Well, I'm probably going to regret saying this somewhere along the way, but Canada holds itself to a higher standard than what is tolerated in the U.S. It's one of the reasons I chose to cast my lot with the Great White North. If you haven't seen this video, do. It is just as chilling as the Rodney King video, maybe even more chilling since everything is done so methodically. When the constables realize that this man is no longer breathing, they just stand there looking down at him.

Charles benoit said...

Rick, you're in marketing. You ought to know it's all image. Canada holds itself to a higher standard? Really? Or is that just the image it has managed to sell the world? The US is the world's whipping boy now, mostly earned, slightly exaggerated. Unlike Canada, we've done a poor job with the PR. The differences between our countries are not nearly as great as your Left and our Right would like to believe. As for psychos with power, the US does not hold a monopoly.

Rick Blechta said...

Before I came to this country, I would have said the same things. On the surface, you're very right, Charles. But that's only on the surface. Once you get to know Canada and its people, you begin to see the differences. They are subtle, but they are there. Canadians look at the world in a different way than Americans do.

My intent with this piece was to remind us to be vigilant. We can do positive things in a situation like this. I have. I've made my feelings clear to elected officials and to the RCMP.

One other place we're specially equipped to do something about this is in our writing. Not by diverting people with "a ripping good yarn", but by helping to educate them. I've, unfortunately, been down the taser road in my books, so I would have a bit more trouble dealing with that at the present time, but this situation does suggest several other plot lines that I could use in a future novel.

Finally, we have a bit of discussion going! It's an ill wind that blows no good. Anyone, feel free to jump in with an opinion.

Vicki Delany said...

I had coffee yesterday with my detective friend from the Nelson City Police, and he brought along a Mountie Forensic Investigator to meet me. The police out here are certainly concerned about this incident, and they're all talking about it. When I go to the U.S. to meet readers groups, I often talk about the difference in U.S. and Cdn policing. My police friends say that Canadian police take a 'gentler' approach. As the Mountie yesterday said "Until Vancouver". Here's an interesting difference - U.S. police are required to carry guns off duty. Canadian police are not allowed to.

Vicki Delany said...

My friends also had a lot to say about problems facing the Mounties right now. For example they have 1000 positions open in B.C. alone at the moment. I was amazed at that.

Rick Blechta said...

I'm hearing the same sort of thing from police friends at this end of the country. The whole situation is a mess.

The biggest problem is that the various government inquiries are all going to promote "band aid solutions" to whatever it is they find. Yes, this will make some things better, but will it get to the roots of the problem? I really doubt it. To do that governments, especially our federal one, would have to admit that a lot more things are wrong -- especially with the RCMP -- than I think they're willing to do -- especially with an election imminent.

I still go back to the fact that somebody in the RCMP, for whatever misguided reason, decided to try to cover up what really happened. Regardless of what's wrong within the Mounties operationally, that was the really disturbing thing as far as I'm concerned. Who was responsible for that and will they be brought to account?

Charles benoit said...

Check out this week's McClean's - there's an interesting artical about the mounties there.

Rick Blechta said...

Yes, someone else was telling me that today. I'm buying a copy tomorrow. Thanks!

As this story goes on, all sorts of things are beginning to come out. There was a lot more things wrong about what happened than the RCMP debacle.