Sunday, November 18, 2007

Tasers, Videos and The Death of Robert Dziekanski

Because of citizen Paul Pritchard and his video recording of the tragic death of Robert Dziekanski, a Polish visitor to Canada, who could not speak English, the world has seen, and is forming its opinions, about Mr. Dziekanski's death. For me it was difficult to watch this video and I can not really imagine the ordeal his mother has endured.

It is not clear to me, because of the progression of events, whether Mr Dziekanski died as a result of the multiple Taser shocks or from the application of physical force and weight to his head and neck by members of the arresting team; or from some combination of these elements. Hopefully a thorough inquiry by independent investigators will establish more certainty.

Unless though, there is evidence that by some incredible coincidence, Mr. Dziekanski was about to die anyway from some unrelated medical condition which just happened to cause his death as he was being Tasered, and officers' were applying their body weight to his head and neck area, then some combination of these arrest methods caused or contributed to his death. Common sense dictates that conclusion.

I do not believe for a second that this vulnerable man died as a result of an alleged medical condition known as "excited delirium syndrome" often relied upon by coroners and other official investigators each time a victim dies after receiving Taser shocks or physical "restraint" at the hands of arresting police authorities. Such reports trot out this as yet unrecognized "syndrome" to explain the deaths of people who die shortly after receiving Taser electric shocks, without in any way implicating the electric shocks, in some cases multiple electric shocks, in those deaths. This explanation is essentially used to exonerate arresting officers.

In one instance in 2006 involving a 21 year old autistic man in Perris California who died after being piled on by several arresting officers Sheriff's officials claimed that the young man died from "autism induced excited delirium syndrome." In explaining deaths of arrested persons following Taser shock or physical force by police authorities The Book of Unrecognized Medical "Syndromes" is invariably consulted while The Book of Common Sense is left to the side, unopened.

Without the Pritchard video the world would not have seen the horrendous final moments of the life of Robert Dziekanski. The primary information source relied upon by news agencies, and the world, to understand this tragic event would be the RCMP, the police force whose officers Tasered and physically sat upon Mr.Dziekanski as he died. This is not the first time that citizen or news video have painted a fuller picture of an arrest incident than what might otherwise be available from police sources. The Rodney King arrest is probably the most well known. I was involved as legal counsel in a much lesser known case in which videotape evidence of CBC cameraman Roger Cosman was a critical factor in my client's acquittal on an obstruction of justice charge - R v LeBlanc, 2006 NBPC 37 (CanLII).

In that case Charles LeBlanc , a well known blogger here in New Brunswick, was arrested by police officers on June 9th, 2006, at an event at the Saint John Trade and Convention Center known as the “Atlantica” Conference. On that day the entrance area to the conference was disrupted by a group of more than 20 masked protesters who stormed the main entrance doors to the event knocking over tables in the admission area and physically pushing police officers in attendance. Mr. LeBlanc, who was not participating in the protest, was present taking pictures and was arrested by the police who executed a take down arrest on him with knees pressed to Mr. LeBlanc's upper body area. Mr. LeBlanc was charged with obstruction of justice but was acquitted. The most important piece of evidence in the trial was a CBC video recording by CBC cameraman Roger Cosman who was filming the protest events and caught Mr. LeBlanc's arrest on videotape. Judge William McCarroll, after noting a number of discrepancies between the evidence of arresting officer Sgt. John Parks, and the CBC videotape, acquitted Mr. LeBlanc.

In the cases of Rodney King, Robert Dziekanski and Charles LeBlanc, video tape evidence was critical, in each instance, in ensuring that the evidence of the arresting officers, who are active parties in any arrest situation, did not form the only reliable basis for assessing the evidence of what took place. It is very difficult. because of human nature, for officers to provide objective evidence once they become involved as arresting officers. In some cases an accused will not be considered as credible a witness as an arresting police officer. A videotape can provide an objective means for a defendant to meet the challenge of rebutting a police officer's testimony. In the case of Robert Dziekanski it provides a voice for someone is no longer available to speak for himself.

Hopefully the investigation of Mr. Dziekanski's death will establish more than the immediate cause of his death and will conduct a thorough, and credible, examination of the safety of Tasers generally. Hopefully too they will investigate the use by coroners, pathologists and official spokespersons of unrecognized medical conditions like "excited delirium syndrome" and "autism induced excited delirium syndrome" in explaining deaths arising during or immediately after Taser shock or the use of physical force by police. In the meantime police forces should cease Taser use in any but the most extreme cases which, by any measure, the Dziekanski situation was not.

It might also be time for police forces to be directed to videorecord their arrests and other situations with citizens where arrest is likely to occur whenever it is possible to do so safely. I realize that this will not always be possible and that police attention has to focus on the situation at hand. It does not seem unreasonable though, in this era of easy digital video recording, for police, in situations like that involving Mr. Dziekanski to have one of the several members present video recording the event. Otherwise, without the good fortune of a professional cameraman or bystander recording an event the real picture may never be known.

In Canada it is reported that Mr. Dziekanski is the 18th person in Canada since 2003 to die incident to a Taser arrest. Let us hope that in 2011 the news will not be reporting on the 36th person to die in Canada incident to a Taser arrest since 2003.


skdadl said...

Some of us know what it is like to accompany an agitated person through the world of so-called "normal" persons, don't we? And we know what feels dangerous. When you're with someone who's vulnerable, it's the "normal" people who scare you.

This story breaks my heart again. Most people simply do not know and do not believe until they are in those shoes themselves, and by then, it's too late and they are all alone.

Pale said...

This exact thing has gone through my mind. Admittedly.
Someone who has severe autism, who may be lost and scared. And may not react as instructed to police.
In the past I have cared for an Autistic child for very short periods, and it was always a trick to balance patience and redirection with someone who just wasn't able to communicate in the "normal" way. All behaviours have a voice, and if you don't know what that is saying, it could lead to tragic circumstances if this is what the police always resort to.

Great post. :)