The first of four RCMP officers involved in the death of Robert Dziekanski, who died after he was stunned with a taser at Vancouver’s airport, stands trial beginning Monday on charges of perjury related to a public inquiry into the case.
Constable Bill Bentley was among four officers who confronted the Polish immigrant in October 2007, stunning him multiple times with a taser within seconds of arriving to a call about a man throwing furniture. Mr. Dziekanski died on the airport floor.
The fatal confrontation fuelled a national debate about the safety of tasers, prompting a public inquiry in B.C. that forced Constable Bentley and the other three officers to account for why they used so much force so quickly on a man who, on an amateur video of the incident, appeared calm when police arrived.
Commissioner Thomas Braidwood’s final report concluded the officers used too much force and had no justification for using the taser.
The report prompted the province to appoint a special prosecutor to review the case. In May of 2011, the prosecutor approved perjury charges against Constable Bentley, Constable Kwesi Millington, Constable Gerry Rundell and Corporal Benjamin Robinson.
The officers have all pleaded not guilty and none of the allegations have been proven in court. Constable Bentley’s lawyer, David Butcher, said at the time the charges were approved that there was “no substance to the allegations at all.”
Mr. Butcher did not respond to a request for comment ahead of Constable Bentley’s trial. A receptionist at Mr. Butcher’s law firm directed calls about the case to his colleague, Peter Wilson, who also did not respond.
Constable Bentley, who started working as an RCMP officer since the spring of 2006, is the first to stand trial. Separate trials are scheduled for the others this coming November and February of next year.
Mr. Dziekanski arrived in Vancouver on Oct. 13, 2007, as he moved to Canada to live with his mother in Kamloops, B.C. He was in the airport for nearly 10 hours, unable to communicate with anyone because he did not speak English.
In the early morning of Oct. 14, Mr. Dziekanski became distraught and began throwing furniture. Several bystanders called 911.
The four officers arrived several minutes later and immediately approached Mr. Dziekanski.
In the video, Constable Bentley can be seen hopping over a railing and walking through a sliding security door as he and the other officers approached Mr. Dziekanski, who stood with his hands by his sides.
Within seconds, the officers surrounded Mr. Dziekanski and one of them fired his taser multiple times, causing Mr. Dziekanski to scream and writhe on the floor.
The video, captured by a traveller at the airport, was played countless times at the inquiry, with Constable Bentley and the other officers narrating the clip with their versions of what happened.
Constable Bentley testified that, based on the 911 call and Mr. Dziekanski’s appearance, he approached the man prepared for a possible fight.
He said at first, Mr. Dziekanski was calm, but then he became “unco-operative” when he threw his hands up and walked away.
Constable Bentley testified that Mr. Dziekanski picked up a stapler, turned toward the officers and swung it in their direction, with the stapler coming within a foot of him.
The video does not show Mr. Dziekanski swinging the stapler, but his back is to the camera – a limitation the officers’ lawyers focused on during the inquiry.
Constable Bentley was also confronted at the inquiry with his own notes from that night and his subsequent statement to homicide investigators.
He included the following account in his notes: “Subject grabbed stapler and came at members screaming.”
At the inquiry, Constable Bentley conceded the note was wrong, but said he was confused about a fast-moving situation. He later insisted the note was “somewhat accurate” because Mr. Dziekanski did start screaming once he was stunned with the taser.
“If we didn’t have a video of this matter, would you be here today telling us that the subject grabbed a stapler and came at the members screaming? Would that be your evidence?” asked commission lawyer Patrick McGowan.
“I don’t know,” replied Constable Bentley.
Several lawyers at the inquiry, including a lawyer for Mr. Dziekanski’s mother and a lawyer representing the Polish government, accused Constable Bentley and the other officers of outright lying – an accusation they all denied.
In the end, the commissioner did not believe Constable Bentley’s testimony about why Mr. Dziekanski was stunned with a taser.
The facts in the case involving the death of Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski:
Robert Dziekanski’s death: The Polish immigrant was moving to Canada to live with his mother. Mr. Dziekanski, who spoke no English, spent nearly 10 hours in Vancouver’s airport, lost and unable to communicate with anyone. He became distraught and started throwing furniture, prompting bystanders to call 911. Four RCMP officers responded, and within seconds of arriving, one of the officers stunned Mr. Dziekanski repeatedly with a taser. He died on the airport floor.
Aftermath: Several weeks after Mr. Dziekanski’s death, a video shot by a witness named Paul Pritchard emerged. The video appeared to contradict the official story from the RCMP, showing Mr. Dziekanski calm with his arms at his side as police officers arrived. The video touched off a fierce debate about the RCMP’s response and taser use in general, prompting the B.C. government to call a public inquiry.
Public inquiry: The commission was overseen by retired judge Thomas Braidwood and was held in two phases: the first, in 2008, examined taser use; the second, in 2009, investigated the circumstances of Dziekanski’s death. Braidwood released his final report from the second phase in June 2010.
The officers’ testimony: Constable Bentley, Constable Kwesi Millington, Constable Gerry Rundell and Corporal Benjamin Robinson all testified at the inquiry, each telling the commissioner Mr. Dziekanski was stunned because the officers believed he was about to attack them with a stapler.
Perjury charges: A special prosecutor approved perjury charges against all four officers in May 2011. Bentley is the first to stand trial, in front of a judge. The remaining three are expected to face separate jury trials in November of this year and February 2014. All four have pleaded not guilty.