Monday, 19 November 2007

Disinterest, fatigue and lack of purpose

I'm going to start with Ken's post on the RCMP taser incident. To quote: "In any controversy involving police officers, I almost always side with the cops. Not this time." He concludes with "I for one would really like to hear the officers' side of the story...not that I can think of one." I share Ken's outrage at this, but my most predominant feeling is one of perplexity. Like Ken, I'm friends with cops, related to cops, neighbors with cops. That closeness influences my perspective on this.

What bothers me most about this tragedy is the complete fumbling of the ball from beginning to end. Where the hell was the airport staff? Why couldn't airport security find someone in authority at the airport to help this man? Why did it go direct to the RCMP?

I may be way off base, but I can see why the RCMP officers acted the way they did. Someone called them in. All that was probably reported to them was that an angry irrational man, close to a violent outburst was causing a disturbance in the baggage area. Why he is this way isn't reported to them. To a certain extent, it need not be, it isn't their job to figure out why, its their job to "solve the problem." Well, they did just that. They very expeditiously quelled a potentially violent man. We're only discussing this because their methods killed him. However, if he had survived, their would still be some questions that need answering.

"Why the taser?" is the question on everybody's lips. If you are in this camp, ask yourself this, what would have happened instead if the officers were not equipped with tasers?

Many mention the baton. So we wanted the officers to beat him? The baton is a weapon, as is the taser. Both can kill or cause serious injury. Presenting the baton as an alternative justifies the use of a tool or a weapon by police officers in incidents of this sort. Offering an alternative justifies the force used. As a non-officer, I hesitate to suggest the most effective weapon in quelling disturbers of the peace. Myself, I can't help thinking pepper spray would have been better, but again, I don't deal with these situations as part of my daily existence.

I find the taser issue a distraction. Any of the above alternatives would have required the officers to have been thinking calmly and clearly, and approaching this situation with an open mind and objective thinking. Watching the video, they clearly were not in this frame of mind. They had already decided how to approach this before they even saw Mr. Dziekanski. Whether they had a huddle and analyzed their options off camera or just shared a brief "we're taking him down as quickly as possible" is irrelevant. The problem for me is that they already decided what the problem was and how they were going to solve it before they fully analyzed the situation.

In that frame of my mind, if they had not been equipped with tasers, I think they would have circled Mr. Dziekanski guns drawn. They wouldn't have used their batons, and they wouldn't have used pepper spray. Hypothetically, that might have been better as Mr. Dziekanski would have been unlikely to turn his back to them. Staring down a gun would have probably sent a chill down his spine and made him much more compliant. We'd still have an overly-aggressive cop issue, but Mr. Dziekanski may well be still alive. However, we will never know. It is equally likely Mr Dziekanski would have been shot by one of the officers.

The problem in this incident isn't the taser per se. Its the frame of mind of the officers involved. Why were they so ready to resort to physical suppression? Why were no other options considered? I can't help but think that either all of them, or just the senior officer, were having a bad day. John links to a very interesting article, How could Vietnam Happen? Reading it, a paragraph jumped out at me. The author is talking about the US administration in place at the time, claiming they were suffering from executive fatigue. He elaborates further with "But what is most seriously eroded in the deadening process of fatigue is freshness of thought, imagination, a sense of possibility, a sense of priorities and perspective— those rare assets of a new Administration in its first year or two of office. The tired policy-maker becomes a prisoner of his own narrowed view of the world and his own clichéd rhetoric. He becomes irritable and defensive—short on sleep, short on family ties, short on patience. Such men make bad policy and then compound it. They have neither the time nor the temperament for new ideas or preventive diplomacy."

It takes very little to rework this sentence to describe operational fatigue. "But what is most seriously eroded in the deadening process of fatigue is freshness of thought, imagination, a sense of possibility, a sense of priorities and perspective— those rare assets of a rookie officer in their first year or two. The tired officer becomes a prisoner of his own narrowed view of the world and his own clichéd rhetoric. He becomes irritable and defensive—short on sleep, short on family ties, short on patience. Such men make bad policy and then compound it. They have neither the time nor the temperament for new ideas or touchy feely people skills. "

Its just a guess, but I suspect operational fatigue is a major contributing factor here. Whether it affected all or one. Lets face it, cops look at the underbelly of human society all the time. They very rarely experience that cherished "goodness" we expect of all people. That has to beat you down. Its hard to approach each and every situation with an open mind, not to see each problem person as a criminal.

This is why I stated the RCMP were the wrong people to handle this. Even truly professional officers may not have handled this situation much differently. Not that this excuses the behaviour or actions of the officers involved, but a large share of the blame is definitely on the airport and its staff. There were multiple failures on many fronts. Many people failed Mr. Dziekanski and ultimately contributed to his demise.

3 comments:

Ken Breadner said...

You're back! I have more thoughtful stuff to read! Yeah!
You're right, of course. I would be VERY interested to know how those officers were briefed. Not that it matters overmuch: as you say, they seemed to act without thinking. The first taser shot happens :23 after the first officer is seen.
Subsequent news reports have mentioned that there are no firm guidelines for use of a taser...you can be zapped for running away, lunging, flinching, even standing still. Which means the taser is now, essentially, a weapon of first resort. Scary thought.

Catelli said...

Thanks for the vote of confidence!

I think the taser could be a valuable tool for properly trained officers, with clearly laid out guidlines.

Did you here about the perp shot outside the Shoppers Drug Mart in Kitchener? Bet you he would have rather been tasered!

Ken Breadner said...

Yeah, I heard that--kind of hard to miss it, front page news and all. What surprised me was this was only the second time Waterloo Regional's killed somebody. That's exemplary for a city this size.