Cops are ordinary people doing extraordinary things

Simple rules to a successful police/citizen encounter:

1. Never get mad.
2. Keep your hands to yourself.
3. Always intend to keep control.
4. Don’t scare me.

This advice, given to me by a well seasoned police detective, has saved me through many situations in both my life and career as a cop. It all came back when I saw those four officers from Vancouver Airport approach Robert Dziekanski in October 2007. They all passed the test and, thanks to that detective’s advice, I had no difficulty understanding why.

The first thing I saw in that video were four officers, (Constables Gerry Rundel, Bill Bentley, Kwesi Millington, and supervisor Corporal Benjamin Robinson) walking, not running, toward their suspect. They were sizing up the scene and understood that what they see at that moment may not be what will greet them. There had been numerous calls of a large violent man out of control, who may harm himself or others, and that was verified by the broken furniture strewn about.

The second point I noted was the officers attempting to speak to their suspect. His hands were down and the officer’s hands were at the ready – as they should be. The suspect did not stop moving about and began looking around furtively. It was clear that, by picking up the stapler, his intent wasn’t to staple papers. His action was a red-flag indicator that the stapler is not the only device he would use if he could get access to it. Some pre-emptive action was necessary to at least get the potential weapon out of his hands. The fact he was or wasn’t waving it around was irrelevant.

My third point – I saw no officer strike the suspect with a blunt instrument or even their hands. They clearly wanted a quick resolution to the problem and only to get a violent man under control, not to do him further harm or torture him.

Finally, and most importantly, I saw no officer display anger.

My old mentor’s voice rang in my ears. You never, ever, hit someone in anger. Keeping control of fear is the first rule and the second is controlling anger. These officers did so admirably.

Police officers have a lot of responsibility to protect the public but are just ordinary people expected to do extraordinary things. Not only are they extraordinary, but they can never count on anyone else succeeding if they fail.

The rule of thumb is simple. An approaching citizen can do anything in front of an officer, but they can’t scare them. If the officer becomes scared, they are authorized to do some extraordinary things to prevent this person from continuing to do so – and the longer the officer has been on the job, the more it takes to scare them. That’s called experience.

Now we come to the “B” word. Brutality!

I winced a little when I heard the Polish media interviewing people on the streets of Warsaw who used the word ‘brutality’ when describing the Vancouver video. The Nazis showed them what brutality is, and the Russians, who were supposedly their saviours, also showed them police brutality. Poland lived under a tyranny and brutality for more than 40 years that the average Canadian can not even imagine, yet its people call what they saw at the airport “brutality.”

What they did see was a very large man, scared, out of control, violent and unable to communicate either by language or mental incapacity. Other people had attempted to intercede to help him but with no success. Airport security personnel arrived, realized it was beyond their capability to do what needed to be done and called the police. There is no level of appeal beyond them… and each officer knew that. If they can do nothing to help this person and stop his rampage, who can?

In 1994, Poland marked the 50th anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising, intended to rid the country of the tyranny of the Nazi regime. In that uprising the Soviet Union stood by and watched as 200,000 brave Poles lost their lives, knowing full well that their own takeover after the war would be made much easier.

It was to be a bitter remembrance but the then President, Lech Walesa, invited representatives from both Russia and Germany to be guests at the remembrance ceremonies. When asked why he was inviting these former adversaries, he quietly pointed out that “We cannot live just by vengeance and hatred.”

Those four officers approached Mr. Dziekanski with no intent to do him harm. They may have approached him with a lot of confusion about the tool they used. Their judgment under stress could be challenged. Their training and the follow up investigations can (and were) brought under scrutiny, but their main intent can not be misunderstood. They were present to simply protect the public and Mr. Dziekanski from further harm.

My challenge to the lawyers and media is to prove otherwise. The evidence of brutality was simply not there.

(Revised from May 2009 edition of Blue Line Magazine)

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