Police follies, big and small

Peter
Peter Jackson
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"Come and get me, copper," said James Cagney, and the coppers always obliged. On this side of the border, the Mounties always got their man, too.

Facing such high expectations, you can almost understand why the RCMP might seem to be falling apart at the seams these days.

"Come and get me, copper," said James Cagney, and the coppers always obliged. On this side of the border, the Mounties always got their man, too.

Facing such high expectations, you can almost understand why the RCMP might seem to be falling apart at the seams these days.

The federal force has faced its share of criticism over the years. They've burned down barns, shot and pepper-sprayed innocent people and faced a fair crop of lawsuits. Taken together, you'd think all the missteps are a sign of a major meltdown in leadership. And, in fact, that's the tack everyone's been on since Guiliano Zaccardelli stepped down in December 2006.

Zaccardelli was the first RCMP commissioner in the history of the force to resign his position. In his wake, the government appointed a civilian commissioner, Bill Elliott - another first for the force.

Zaccardelli faced a storm of controversy at the time. The force was still reeling over the murder of four young constables in Mayerthorpe, Alta., in 2005. Top brass in the force were suspected of tampering with the pension fund. And an inquiry was examining the transfer of false information about Syrian-born citizen Maher Arar to American authorities. When Zaccardelli himself was caught contradicting his own testimony at the Arar inquiry, he bowed to the pressure to relinquish his post.

Expecting change

The media's mantra at the time was that the RCMP had lost its way. The force needed a complete overhaul. Things were going to change.

But things didn't change.

In Vancouver, an inquiry is delving into the circumstances surrounding the death in 2007 of Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski at Vancouver International Airport.

Last month, the constables involved in Tasering Dziekanski denied they'd fudged their original reports, even though an amateur video of the incident clearly contradicts their story.

This month, the testimony has gone from strange to surreal.

Communications officers admitted they gave false information to the media, including denying at first that a video even existed.

Then a lead investigator was asked why he did not re-interview the officers involved when the video undermined their story. He said he was following orders, thus pointing his finger further up the food chain.

Questions about report

Now, questions are being raised about a coroner's report that makes no mention of Taser marks which would have proven Dziekanski was Tasered five times, as the video shows.

It's like JFK in reverse. This time there really is a conspiracy and it's quickly unravelling under public scrutiny.

The circus on the Pacific Coast almost makes law enforcement in this province look rock solid, despite the scattered misadventure.

On April 18, a young man named Dane Spurrell was walking on Topsail Road when a police officer pulled up and questioned him.

Dane is autistic, but the police officer didn't realize that. The police are used to encountering all sorts of drunk and stoned youth wandering the streets on Saturday nights and Dane's awkward gait was attributed to intoxication or some other kind of impairment, and his blunt, literal responses to questions were mistaken for sarcasm.

Things went from bad to worse, and Dane was eventually wrestled into the car and brought to the station, where he spent the night in jail.

At first blush, it's hard to believe the police were fooled by Dane's mannerisms. Hadn't they seen "Rainman"? Hadn't they read "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime"?

Given the time of night and the officers' expectations, however, their mistake is at least somewhat understandable.

A few tweaks in training may be one good thing that comes of this. Police could be taught to better recognize conditions, such as autism, that may be mistaken for intoxication.

The most reassuring part of the whole story is how honest and upfront everyone was from the beginning. In spite of her anger, Dane's mother did tell a CBC Radio host that parents of autistic children should instruct them to do whatever the police tell them to do. Meanwhile, RNC Chief Joe Browne and the officers involved were quick to offer the Spurrells a full apology for the mishap - in person.

Dane's mother, Diane, has accepted the apology.

Being upfront

A friend who works in government communications told me this weekend that she always advises her political bosses to be upfront with the public right from the get-go. It's unfortunate so many of them don't follow that advice.

Perhaps they should take a good, hard look at recent trials and tribulations in law enforcement.

The best approach is usually the right one.

Peter Jackson is The Telegram's editorial page editor. He can be contacted by e-mail at pjackson@thetelegram.com.

Organizations: RCMP, Vancouver International Airport, Pacific Coast CBC Radio The Telegram

Geographic location: Mayerthorpe, Vancouver, Topsail Road

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Recent comments

  • Patti
    July 02, 2010 - 13:30

    As long as police in Canada, obviously including the RCMP, continue to investigate themselves and each other - and as long as they continue to get the best seats at autopsies of people who die in their custody, this problem will never go away.

    Patti Gillman, Ontario
    Owner of TNT - Truth ... not tasers
    http://truthnottasers.blogspot.com

  • Patti
    July 01, 2010 - 20:19

    As long as police in Canada, obviously including the RCMP, continue to investigate themselves and each other - and as long as they continue to get the best seats at autopsies of people who die in their custody, this problem will never go away.

    Patti Gillman, Ontario
    Owner of TNT - Truth ... not tasers
    http://truthnottasers.blogspot.com