VANCOUVER, B.C. – Robert Dziekanski’s death at Vancouver’s airport has eroded public confidence in the RCMP among Canadians who feel four officers used too much force when they shocked the Polish immigrant with a Taser, a new survey suggests.
Dziekanski’s fatal confrontation with police in October 2007, captured on shaky amateur video and seen around the world, was immediately followed by public outrage that has haunted the force.
The ongoing public inquiry into Dziekanski’s death is intensifying the scrutiny and further staining an iconic police force already facing image problems.
The Canadian Press Harris-Decima poll found 61 per cent of those surveyed felt the officers used excessive force when they confronted Dziekanski and stunned him several times with a Taser.
About half of those surveyed said the death and the inquiry hasn’t changed their confidence in the Mounties, but 36 per cent said their confidence decreased.
That’s a significant number, says Harris-Decima vice-president Jeff Walker, especially given the long list of problems – from the Maher Arar affair to a botched SOS search in B.C.’s Rockies last month – already hanging over the force.
“There’s been a fair number of these stories that have been on the negative side of the ledger for the RCMP and not so many on the positive side to help balance that off,” Walker said in an interview Tuesday.
“So that certainly makes this a tougher situation for the RCMP. It’s giving people a sense that this is a pattern.”
Those questioned were given a brief synopsis of why the officers say the Taser was justified: they felt threatened after Dziekanski picked up a stapler.
But 60 per cent said they didn’t accept that story.
“What people told us in response to that is that didn’t sound like a very credible way of presenting the risk of Mr. Dziekanski,” said Walker.
The numbers were worse in B.C., where 73 per cent said the officers used too much force, and 54 per cent said they now have less confidence in the RCMP.
The public inquiry has already heard from three of the four officers who confronted the Polish man after he started throwing furniture at Vancouver’s airport.
Dziekanski didn’t speak English, had been travelling for more than a day and spent nearly 10 hours at the airport.
The officers have said they believed Dziekanski posed a threat when he picked up a stapler and were worried he was about to attack them or bystanders.
The officer who fired the Taser five times said he kept using the 50,000-volt weapon because he thought Dziekanski was being combative as he screamed and writhed on the floor.
Prosecutors in B.C. announced in December the officers involved would not face criminal charges, saying their use of force was justified in the circumstances.
Response to the testimony in newspaper columns, editorial cartoons, letters to the editor and comments below online stories has been overwhelmingly negative. The reaction has been a mix of often-vitriolic outrage to sarcasm, with some readers derisively suggesting the federal government should consider a national stapler registry.
The RCMP has since made changes to its Taser policies – for example, restricting their use to people who pose a danger to officers or the public – but has acknowledged those changes likely wouldn’t have changed what happened to Dziekanski.
A spokesman for the RCMP didn’t return calls for comment.
Marketing professor Lindsay Meredith said maintaining public confidence is especially crucial because police need public support in order to be effective.
Meredith, who teaches at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., said the dramatic video has clearly had an enormous effect on how the public views the case, making it especially problematic for the RCMP to stand behind the officers.
“The fact is, there’s tape, and people can see with their own eyes what unfolded there,” he said.
The telephone survey of just over 1,000 people was conducted between March 5 and 8, and is considered accurate within 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20. The B.C. results have a margin of error of 5.1 percentage points.