Four cops surround a man on the ground just prior to killing him in the Vancouver airport.

The Robert Dziekanski case

I have started writing about the killing of Robert Dziekanski on numerous occasions. I always scrapped my drafts because I was worried that my anger over the killing and the subsequent cover up, would bias my analysis. So some more time has passed and here are some thoughts.

RCMP brand management

When we think about the RCMP we often think about dutiful horses and honest men with mustaches. The Canadian Mounties have always had a pretty solid brand. The brand elements range from their unique outfits and the buffalo on the crest to the history and mythos that remains alive in the stories told about them and their brave deeds. It is also interesting to note just how much Canada’s branding both amongst Canadians and internationally relies on the images and stories of the RCMP.

The tragic case of Robert Dziekanski has proven to be a challenge for the brand managers in the RCMP. Type “Robert Dziekanski” into a search engine and you’ll get a bazillion hits. But what is also interesting is that there are so many relatively new articles on the web. Take this article, for example, about the fact that the RCMP officers are still being paid despite their wrongdoings.

Strategic communication

Dziekanski first hit the news in October of 2007. Here is one of the first written articles that was produced by the CBC about the situation. The language that reporters used to describe the event was important. It would set the frame through which Canadians, and the world, would first understand the issue. So the soundbites from the RCMP were crucial from a media management perspective. The initial frame was roughly that: 1. there had been a tragic event involving a foreigner, 2. Tasers had been deployed twice, 3. police officers had done their duty and followed procedure, 4. The foreigner had died, 5. the foreigner had been acting violently, 6. there was a toxicology report pending because substance use was suspected.

These bits of information were strategically chosen to present the role of the RCMP in a positive, or at least neutral, light. And twenty years ago, this would have probably been sufficient to protect the brand of the RCMP. Some articles would have gotten printed. Some interviews would have hit the six o’clock news. And some radio listeners would have lamented the tragic situation.

But brand management has become a little trickier in our modern context. It’s three and a half years later and articles are still being published about what is generally regarded as a deep injustice. And this presents an interesting challenge to a national institution that maybe hasn’t quite come to grips with the new context in which they’re attempting to manage their brand.

Initially everything seemed to be going okay for the RCMP messaging. Often I would hear people referring to the “incident”, not the “killing”, or they would say that Dziekanski had died after being shocked, not killed by the RCMP intervention. So the initial frame went a long way towards neutralizing the role of the RCMP in the tragedy. Admittedly, even today you can hear people say that Dziekanski was “killed by tasers used by RCMP”. So there are still some long-term benefits accruing by the initial framing of RCMP spokespeople.

But there are far more disadvantages to the slightly outmoded approach by the RCMP. And these disadvantages have been making the public concern about Robert Dziekanski case significant and lasting in a way that is hurting the brand value of the RCMP. Here are what I see as the main factors that the RCMP haven’t properly grappled with.

1. Video

The chances of someone getting videotape of police mis-handling someone twenty years ago is incredibly unlikely. My dad had a Super8 but there’s no way he would have wasted his precious tape on, what he would have probably seen as, a distasteful public moment. But photo, and video and audio devices now abound.

This is important, partly, because it has been the modus operandi of the RCMP to assert their authority and take the higher moral ground and therefore call into question the testimony of anyone challenging their own account of an incident. And the strength of the RCMP brand has historically made this work. But an RCMP lie can’t trump video.

2. Random access of data

When the news came to us via the radio or the television or in print, the average citizen could not go see what so-and-so said eight months ago. Taken together with the general predispositions and leanings of the news media the net result of this was a short public memory for lying. We still grapple with a short attention span for the truth, but the fact that people can still access the reports and interviews and soundbites from 2007 is, I think, a really important factor in modern speechifying and modern brand management. The RCMP lied repeatedly in an attempt to gloss over facts they didn’t want out in the hearts and minds of Canadians and the internet makes this something that is very difficult to run from. The slogan “time heals all wounds” makes more sense if you don’t have easy access to old facts or lots of facts all at once. Of course ultimately the truth still needs to become part of the public discourse. Despite the entitlement of the RCMP, the public has a right to know.

3. Increased distrust

This third point is even more speculative. But here it is. I think that slowly but surly the RCMP brand has been quietly eroding and the public has less willingness to turn away from injustice and incompetence. Less trust means less sympathy, more scrutiny and greater accountability. This hasn’t happened slowly. It’s taken decades for the Canadian public to wake up to this. The RCMP has an inflated sense of entitlement and you get the sense that they think they are too important for criticism.

Still angry

You know, it’s not clear to me, even now, that the Taser killed Dziekanski. I watched the tape and to me it looked like Dziekanski could have been killed by positional asphyxation – the knee to the neck cutting off the blood supply to the brain. I don’t think we’ll ever really know. I’m still angry. I know I’m not alone. But regardless of the precise reason, Dziekanski was killed by those four officers. I guess the fact that there has been no accountability for those officers is troubling.

If four unskilled citizens had walked in to that room and killed someone acting out, they would have been charged with manslaughter, regardless of their “good intentions” or the tools and methods used. But dress four men up in uniforms, and give them specialized training in the use of force, and for some reason they are less accountable. Which is odd.

If I hire a qualified mechanic to fix my truck and they destroy it, they’re liable. If I ask my buddy to fix my truck and he destroys it, I’m liable. The police officers that killed Dziekanski were professionals and they should be more accountable than four average citizens; not less.

The officers failed to properly assess and respond to the situation effectively. Then they used too much force. Then they failed to administer CPR.

Then the officers lied. Then their superiors and media relations officers lied. They lied about the cause of death. They lied about Dziekanski’s character. Then they lied about the video.

Then they lied about lying.

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  1. Terrific piece Sherwin.

    Citizen-videotaped abuses started showing up in the public consciousness just a few years ago. At the time, I wondered if public discourse would make the leap from “these are crazy abuses, what a great thing there happened to be somebody with a video recorder there!” to “if this event would have been hidden if nobody with a surprise video recorder had been there, how many hidden abuses are going down all the time?”

    Years later it seems like we’re still not making that leap. But we are getting so damn ubiquitous in our citizen surveillance that maybe it’s not as important to do so. A meaningful proportion of the outrages that occur are actually going to be recorded. It’s less like a survey and more like a census.

    I’m guessing there are important exceptions. Which kinds of incidents *don’t* get recorded? By definition it’s hard to know.

    And then there is the question: when we know uniformed officers of government are abusing their power to hurt and hinder, do we have the collective wherewithal to do something about it? In the case of Dziekanski, it seems like we’re not doing perfectly, but we’re doing surprisingly well. You’re so right to point out that in the days and hours following the “incident” it looked like we were trending towards not doing anything at all.

    I still get angry, and nervous, when I think about it.

  2. Thank you and I think you just asked a million dollar question: “which kinds of incidents don’t get recorded?” It might be hard to know, but not impossible. It’s precisely the kind of question that can be answered by folks with enough expertise in social sciences research or geography or survey analysis or statistical modeling. I think it is answerable.

    Let’s start by asking, are there meaningful groupings of times or places when our current data points (video tapings) occurred? When were they not? Where were they not? Then ask, are there special traits or features or behaviours that the video makers had that everyone else doesn’t have? Can you identify risk factors that interrupt video taking opportunities? Let’s survey people who tried to take a video and failed: why did it fail? The police took my video and didn’t return it until I sued them is an obvious answer but what else? When and where are these risk factors most prevalent or of highest risk? Hmmm, what else? It’s fun to think of the “incidents” as survey data and try to figure out how to apply it’s relevance statistically.

    Actually the more I think about it the more I think it’s probably not a census.

  3. I am very pleased that you have renewed some of the discussion about the RCMP’s failure to respond in support of a person. Mr. Dziekanski required assistance not abuse and death. His mother was also ignored in her request for ‘help’.

    The initial and very real failure on the part of the airport should have resulted in immediate firing of the management and staff of the departments involved. NO DISCUSSION OF THIS has been on the CBC/ CTV news networks that myself or my family watched.

    The RCMP have had closures of training centers, reductions in training time. There was a time when training centers for RCMP and other police have been used for training of police worldwide. Our politicians are also implicit in removing funding for the fundamentals.

    The current governments choose instead to copy our neighbor’s ‘buy bigger guns/black SUV assault trucks/tasers, etcetera….’. Staff at airports and rcmp require more training in dealing with people not more weapons.

    The use of tasers by police forces should be banned outright. Use of restraining methods should be revitalized and when police draw a weapon (not a taser) they should know it will kill someone.

    I hope that politicians realize that their support of our ‘forces’ could revitalize some of the pride and admiration that all of our forces deserve. This support should be in training not in advertising.

  4. What is even more disturbing is the police learned from this case. Now they actively seek out and arrest anyone with a camera, seize the camera (sometimes destroying it on the spot) and making sure there is no evidence of what they have done (wipe the card/memory). In Winnipeg, news stories reported how a this happened to a media camera person. There was no outcry. The officer involved was not punished. There were a couple more like that. I decided to test it. I stopped at a crime scene, behind the citizen watching it furtherest from the scene. I had a big DSLR. As soon as an officer saw it, he headed straight my way. I waited until he passed the citizens furthest from the scene. He was still coming straight at me, but I had left myself enough additional distance I had time to get off the public sidewalk into my legally parked car and leave.

    Police are not dumb. Corrupt yes, dumb no.

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