Maxed out 

The breakdown of the social contract

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To serve and protect, eh?

As a society, there's this pact we make with police officers. It's part of what can broadly be called the social contract as painstakingly developed by Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau, among others. We - non police people - agree to be generally law abiding and non-vigilante, repudiating our instinctive might-makes-right ancestry. Police agree to enforce laws our elected representatives pass, including the ones we're not particularly crazy about ourselves. We agree to pay the police, outfit them in cool uniforms, fast cars and advanced weaponry and provide reasonably generous pensions.

We also agree to let them carry, and use, lethal weapons. But only under evolving terms we all agree make sense. Back in the day - I think it was the 1950s - that meant letting them call out the bad guys and gun them down in the dusty streets of Dodge City, from whence the term, "Get out of Dodge," sprung. At least that's what the cop/sheriff TV shows of the time suggested. Of course, they were actually depicting the historical Wild West, not 1950s reality. In the 1950s, cops were mostly chasing bad guys and minorities. But I digress.

In order to secure the peace, we agree to let police roam among us with weapons of fast destruction strapped to their belts. In relative order of potential mayhem, these include pepper spray, nightsticks, Tasers and pistols of various descriptions. There is no other segment of society that is afforded this right, at least not on this side of the border. In the U.S., it seems pretty much anyone can carry a strap-on 9mm argument if they can pass a background check or personally know, knew, Charlton Heston.

So what's the cop's side of this bargain? They agree not to act like the thugs they're supposed to arrest. They agree not to shoot people indiscriminately, beat the snot out of people just for the thrill of it or pretend they're the entire criminal justice system and become enforcers, adjudicators and executioners.

Somewhere along the way in peace-loving Canada, the deal's broken down. Too many times in the recent past, the police have crossed the line and seemingly become the criminals they're supposed to protect us from. That they haven't been brought to justice is a stain on their record and a shame on our society and politicians who keep letting the police investigate and police themselves.

Robert Dziekanski's death by Taser may be getting all the profile right now, but his case joins the list of, for example, Neil Stonechild (left to freeze to death in the boonies outside Saskatoon), J.J. Harper ("accidental" police revolver fire), Wilfred Asham (no obvious cause of death in a holding cell), Paul Boyd (crazy guy swinging a chain, shot repeatedly), Ian Bush (shot in the back of the head in custody), Kevin Geldart (another crazy guy tasered repeatedly), Matthew Dumas (brought a screwdriver to a gun fight with Winnipeg police), and, not to belabour the point, Kevin St. Arnaud (drunk guy shot by cop with bad memory).

The list doesn't include Firoz Khan, who was jumped and beaten by two or three off-duty Vancouver-area police for, apparently, committing the crime of being a brown guy doing his job and filling newspaper boxes. If one of them hadn't come to his senses and tried to stop the other two, Khan too might have joined the list of mistakes to be buried by internal investigations.

There's only one reason Dziekanski's electrocution is getting the kind of airing that's going on in Vancouver at the Braidwood inquiry. No, it's not because he was a foreign visitor to the warm, loving country of Canada who was left, inexplicably, to wander the Vancouver airport for 10 hours looking for his mama while no one had the compassion to approach the Polish-speaking man and offer help. Although that does raise the interesting question of exactly what Canada's response would be if Polish police had executed a confused Canadian at the Warsaw airport in similar circumstances.

And it's not because some trigger-happy young cop who had just been trained in the use of Tasers pumped 50,000 volts into him... five times in just over 30 seconds, four of them after the roly-poly 40-year-old was already writhing on the ground in agony. Although that does remind one of the old adage about how everything looks like a nail to a man with a hammer.

The only reason we're riveted by this sideshow is because someone caught it all on grainy video. There's an independent, third-party record of the event to cast a different light on the officer's version of the "facts," their after the fact report and their direct testimony. The light it casts is the harsh light of truth and the harsh truth is this: every one of the officers has lied, covered-up, and contradicted what the others have testified to.

More than the indiscriminate use of lethal force, more than the shoot first and ask questions later - if ever - more than the disturbing trend to incapacitate suspects and citizens if they aren't as compliant and docile as the police would like them to be, it is those lies, cover-ups and contradictions that raise the disturbing question underlying the investigation: Can we trust the people we've entrusted to keep us safe and carry out society's laws?

The answer so far is absolutely not.

Absent the video, there would be no Braidwood inquiry. The Mounties' verbal account of the incident and written report would have been accepted as fact and Dziekanski's death would have been immediately ruled justifiable. After all, the man wielded a weapon. A stapler in the hands of a martial arts expert may be considered formidable against four heavily armed and body-armoured police; a stapler in the hands of a middle-aged, tubby, jet-lagged man is, well, just a stapler. I guess they could have broken out the shotguns had the man picked up something as deadly as, say, a three-hole punch!

But each officer in turn has had to back away from his version of the truth while watching the video. Dziekanski didn't swing the stapler wildly above his head. He wasn't fighting the cops. He did go down after the first Taser coursed 50,000 volts through his body. He wasn't struggling or deserving of four more jolts. Nothing the police said happened actually happened. They made it up to cover their rogue asses after they executed this hapless Polish gent. This isn't a case of a bad cop or a couple of bad cops; this is about a culture steeped in an aura of infallibility and virtual prosecutorial immunity.

B.C.'s government and Canada's government have both made a big deal during the past week about getting tough on crime and gangs. Stiffer penalties, more laws, expanded police power. Nothing that actually helps or has any efficacy.

The police and politicians want judges and prosecutors to deal more harshly with gangsters and gun-happy bad guys. I guess the irony escapes them. If the guys we authorize to carry lethal weapons can't be brought to justice when they misuse them, why should we be surprised if no one else is?

Why indeed.

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