Fatality Prompts Scrutiny of Police Tasers in Canada

Video from the Airport

This video on YouTube shows the Tasering and death of Robert Dziekanski at the Vancouver airport. The video contains graphic images. YouTube hide caption

See the Video
itoggle caption YouTube

There is a growing call in Canada for restrictions on police use of electric stun guns. The American-made Taser is under scrutiny after the release of a video showing a deadly outcome after it was used on a distraught Polish immigrant at Vancouver airport.

The now-famous video, shot in October in the arrivals area of the Vancouver airport, shows a disoriented- and distressed-looking Robert Dziekanski pacing, throwing a laptop, then throwing a folding table. Four officers of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police briefly try to calm him, then back him against a wall and stun him with a Taser.

Paul Pritchard, just returning from a trip around the world, is the one who captured the scene.

"At first, we're just videotaping. It's just an entertainment thing," Pritchard says. "But when you hear that zapping of the Taser and you hear him screaming, it became very, very real."

Witnesses say Dziekanski was shocked at least twice before he died.

After the death, the Mounties took Pritchard's video, promising to return it. Pritchard had to threaten legal action to get it back. When it was finally released in November, it caused a furor.

In Parliament, Thomas Mulcair of the opposition New Democratic Party demanded that the government freeze the use of Tasers nationwide.

"How many more people are going to have to be killed by Tasers before this government understands that it has to decree a moratorium?" Mulcair asked.

Dave MacKenzie, the government's parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Public Safety, counseled patience, saying the government preferred not to pass judgment on what happened while "there are a number of investigations under way."

In fact, this incident has triggered nine separate investigations, including a review of how and when Canadian police use Tasers. While some opposition politicians want to see a freeze on Taser use until those investigations are completed, Taser International, headquartered in Arizona, says that would be a mistake.

"A moratorium is a step backward," company spokesman Steve Tuttle said. "In human rights, it's a step backward in terms of protecting the public, and it's going to put officers at risk because the Taser has been so successful at the guys we call '1 percenters' — the guys who don't feel pain, or someone who might be emotionally disturbed that doesn't feel the normal techniques when they're being arrested."

Tuttle says politicians and the media are jumping to conclusions. He especially objects to headlines using the phrase "Taser death," when the official cause of death in the airport incident has not yet been determined.

"We went through these investigations back in 2005 in the United States, and we clearly have better Taser programs now," Tuttle said. But he acknowledges the anti-Taser sentiment in Canada. "It's difficult — it's a challenge for us in public affairs right now, but we're going to win this fight," Tuttle said.

It may take a while before there is any relief to Taser's public relations pain. Canadian newspapers have begun a running tally of deaths that may or may not have been caused by Taser use, and residents show little sign that they're getting over what they saw in that video.

Clear across the country in Nova Scotia, Arnold D'Eon is one of those who were outraged by what happened in Vancouver.

"I believe it's my obligation as a Canadian citizen to stand up and say 'Whoa — this is not right,' " D'Eon said. D'Eon, a retired plumber, made a memorial cross out of pipe from his scrap yard and erected it on a promontory overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.

"It's 16 feet high, and seven-and-a-half feet across, and it says 'Robert Dziekanski — and others,' " D'Eon said, indicating that it's meant to memorialize what he believes to be a growing list of Taser deaths.

D'Eon said he can accept that the Taser should be used in some cases, but he said he is spooked by the sight of Mounties using the Taser as "a weapon of convenience." He says it just strikes him as un-Canadian.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.