Robert is dead

October 14, 2010

On this day, in 2007, Robert Dziekanski was killed by a Tazer in the hands of the RCMP (the Royal Canadian Mounted Police).

Robert

There’s plenty to say about the killing of Robert Dzkenski.  A great deal of it has already been said, and – we can hope – not forgotten. The report of the offical inquiry, written by Commisoner Thomas Braidwood , goes on for 460 pages.

Reading that report, and watching the video (shot by a bystander) of the end of Robert’s life, I did notice one troubling detail which I’ve found troubling… among a mass of troubling parts.

When Robert lost his temper, no one around him could speak or understand his language.  No one even knew what language he could understand.

The following traces the evolution of this language barrier from Robert’s arrival until he is killed.

The very first layer of officaldom, a private contractor working to direct people towards customs, discovered that Robert did not speak english. (She conveyed her simple message with hand signals).

The very first Customs officer – just by glacing at Robert’s passport – knew that Robert was Polish. By offering Robert a choice of the basic declaration cards, translated into many languages, he confirmed that he spoke Polish.

About an hour after the flight arrived, a stewardess noticed Robert’s unclaimed bags. By scanning the luggage tags, she figured out that he came from Poland. She then asked a Customs officer if they knew where Robert was. They didn’t.  (The Braidwood Report’s account of the stewardess’ trestimony does not include whether or not she mentioned that the missing passenger was Polish… it doesn’t seem like a stretch to think that she would have.

Sometime after 1900h, Customs was contacted by a person (Mr.Hutchinson) waiting to meet Robert. They were told that he spoke Polish.  This officer told another officer that a family was worried about a man who should have arrived from Poland… this conversation was overheard by their supervisor.

At 2230h, Robert found his way to the Secondary Customs station. These officers testified that it was obvious there was a language barrier, but that they did not think that they needed a translator. Robert was sent on to the Secondary Immigration station, where the language issue repeated itself. These officers managed to figure out that Robert spoke Polish (Braidwood does include an explanation of why they did not simply look at his passport), they looked in a database for appropriate translators, and found none. (They testified that – astonishingly – they had not been aware that they had access to a 24/7 hotline to translation services for 170 different languages). By luck one other officer on duty could speak a very little Polish. With his help, Immigration managed to accomplish their task.

During his time in secondary Immigation, a (non-Polish) translator watched officers trying to communicate with Robert. She intervened to suggest that they call translator and offered that she knew one who spoke Polish.

Also during this time, the Customs officer who had spoken with Mr.Hutchinson noticed Robert and put two and two together. She told Immigration that the people waiting to meet Robert had been worried, and may have given up and gone home.

A while later (shortly before 0100), the officer who had been able to speak a bit of Polish, noticed that Robert didn’t seem to understand that he was cleared to leave. He guided him to the theshold and wished him a good night. Within steps, Robert was again in a world where no one could speak his language and, worse, the identify of that language was suddenly lost.

At just after 0100, a security guard encountered an agiated Robert in the International Arrivals Lounge. The language barrier was rediscovered.

About two minutes later, a bystander complained about Robert to security, mentioning that Robert did not speak any English and guessing that he might speak Russian.

This guess was incorrect – Robert was speaking Polish. (This detail is less relevant than it might seem… Robert, educated in Soviet influenced Poland of the 1970s, would have almost certainly been taught to speak and understand Russian.

No matter the exact language, it takes until 0135hr for Airport security to make any attempt to find someone who could speak either language. Earlier, they had rejected an offer from a staff member who offered to help as he could speak Russian.  Nobody bothered to use the wall-mounted help phones which would have patched them through to the 24/7 translation service (170 languages).

When the police arrived (0127h) several bystanders and a security guard told them that Robert spoke Russian. The officers, perhaps because they were rushing (for which they were later repremanded), made no attempt to find a Russian-speaker who could assist.

By 0135h, when security finally asked that somebody ask the maintence staff if anyone on duty happen to speak Russian, Robert was already dead.

Video footage (shot by a bystander) shows Robert making several attempts to communicate and cooperate with the police. When he understood a demand to see his passport, he obediently tried to get it from his luggage. (To what must have been confusion and frustration, a second officer immediately demanded that he stop reaching for his passport). Robert trys to comply with an officer’s demand to see a passport, is suddenly told to stop, and then – confused – raising his hands in a guesture of surrender). He spoke in Polish: “leave me alone… have you gone mad?”.

As they will conceed, the police’s role was to minimize the risk of anyone being injured by containing Robert, and then calming him down.  (Yes, as a very last resort, it would have been appropriate to physically restrain Robert).  To calm someone requires communicating. In this case a translator was required.  It would not have been sensible to wait for one to arrive… but (a) translation services were available on those wall-mounted phones, (b) containing Robert’s minor rampage took was quickly and easily accomplished just by their pressence and a few hand-guestures… at this point the police were in a position to wait for a translator to fly in from Mars.

There is no excuse for police officers, stationed for regular duty at an international airport to be unaware of, and accustomed to accessing, resources available to help them communicate with travellers who can not speak english.

That incompetance is a key to how Robert ended up dead.

Part of what feuled Robert’s frustration, and then anger, was surely the experience of being severed – by the legacy of Babel – from everyone around him.

Being unable to either speak to or understand anyone around you is to be severed from all others… dangling in an unnatrual, individual state.  This can be part of the buzz of travelling, it can also spiral very quickly into a nightmare.

Most people have had their heart pound through a dream of being unable to speak to communicate.

Facing one stranger, with no common language, is awkward. Being lost in such a crowd is frightening.  Being confronted by police officers – quite apparently in an alarming rush, would have been absolutely terrifying… and a horrible way to die.

***

Post-Inquiry updates:
Braidwood notes that Vancouver International Airport has implemented some improvments.

All Security Guards are given a “Customer Care Cards” which include directions to make use of the interpretor-hot-line.

All staff are given Blackberries to allow them to access the interpretor-hot-line.

Cards, to be given to any passenger in distress, have been designed to so that they may – by pointing to their language – help staff begin assisting them.

Additional courtesy phones have been hung, to provide easier access to the interpretor hot-line.

The offending officers were not fired. The RCMP reassigned them to posts away from the airport.

After two and a half years, the head of the RCMP offered Robert’s mother an apology.

The RCMP officers responsible for Robert’s death were never charged.

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