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New book casts Robert Dziekanski case in a different, more nuanced light

Last Updated Jan 14, 2019 at 10:20 am PST

(Courtesy Dundurn Press)

Vancouver (NEWS 1130) – It seems we still have a lot to learn about the deadly confrontation between four RCMP officers and a Polish immigrant at YVR, more than 11 years after it happened. The author of a new book is casting the death of Robert Dziekanski and its aftermath in a different, more nuanced light.

Longtime CBC BC journalist Curt Petrovich has covered the case from the beginning and in Blamed and Broken: The Mounties and The Death of Robert Dziekanski he digs deeper into what happened than just about anyone else ever has.

“This has probably been the single toughest story that I’ve ever pursued in my entire career, simply because it took so long and it just required such effort over time,” he admits.

It’s hard to forget the images of the officers Tasering Dziekanski at the Vancouver airport back in October 2007. However, Petrovich goes beyond the basic assumptions of the case, which cast the 40-year-old as a blameless victim and the Mounties as villains and cover-up artists.

“If I have to come down on one side or the other, I come down on the side that there simply isn’t any evidence that these four officers lied,” he argues. “If you even look at the criminal trials, as most people did not, two judges found that they did not lie.”

Petrovich says the officers paid a price as well and feels the RCMP should bear more responsibility.

“It was almost impossible for the RCMP to undo the damage to its reputation and what happened was those four officers bore the brunt of the RCMP’s mishandling of this whole incident.”

Petrovich says this is not supposed to be a rehash of past reporting, but a more complete look at the story, informed by new interviews with the players involved and a thorough assessment of all the facts.

NEWS 1130’s John Ackermann reached Curt Petrovich by phone earlier this week. Read part of their interview below:

Ackermann: Easy question to start things off, what made or what inspired you to write the book?

Petrovich: “That’s not such an easy question! As a journalist, I covered the case of the death of Robert Dziekanski from the morning he died at YVR and didn’t know at that time obviously that it would be a story that I would never leave to this day. I don’t think anybody expected, when Robert Dziekanski died, that it would drag on for more than a decade in terms of dealing with the fallout and finding reasons for why he died and who was responsible and how those people would be held accountable. I covered it just like every other journalist and pursued it from the point of view of trying to find out what happened and I sat through the [Braidwood] inquiry that was held, I then followed the criminal trials of the four officers who were charged with lying at the inquiry over some of the answers they gave, and I was fundamentally unsatisfied by what I was hearing. It wasn’t enough for me to just simply take it on faith that the opinion of the inquiry was that these four officers were lying because their testimony at the inquiry was fairly limited. It was kept to very straightforward answers of yes and no, very little opportunities for them to explain. As I came to know later, they were essentially concerned about their own reputations and had been prepped by lawyers to say as little as possible and to only answer the questions that they were asked and, as a result, I think a lot of people, journalists included, formed an opinion about a narrative about what happened and I was fundamentally unhappy with that because there were many, many questions. It took a while but I reached out to each of the four officers and eventually got each of them to sit down and talk with me and that’s when I started to realize that perhaps we hadn’t heard the whole story. And the more questions I asked about what happened, especially as the process went on to charge and prosecute the four officers for lying, the more I started to see things that didn’t quite add up and I think any journalist faced with a stack of questions for which there are no real good answers would just keep asking those questions until you get them and that’s what I did.”

Ackermann: Now you describe going into the initial assignment with a series of assumptions that other people made as well. What were they?

Petrovich: “I think almost from the very beginning, from the very early days of Robert Dziekanski’s death, I think most people assumed that these police officers were, in some senses, almost robotic, that they went in, they didn’t care about Robert Dziekanski, they used the most efficient means possibly to subdue him and then after he died, it appeared, I think, according to the narrative that we were all sort of led to believe, that these officers then tried to cover up their misdeeds, they tried to fudge what happened. That, despite the fact that all of these four officers knew that it had been caught on video tape, that there were somewhere around two dozen eyewitnesses to what had happened, that within hours of the event, each of them gave statements about what happened, apparently unconcerned that anything that had happened would come back to haunt them. We now know, of course, that that’s not the case, that, in fact, because of that video captured the whole incident, it had an enormous impact on the public, especially people who are not used to seeing police use force when trying to deal with somebody. And I think once that video made it into the public realm, made worse by the fact the RCMP initially didn’t realize that this was going to be as volatile and as traumatic an incident for most people to witness, and then sort of dragged their feet about making this information public, that sort of got all mixed up in this notion that there must be a cover up, that the RCMP is trying to hide something, and these four officers are at the centre of this conspiracy. Once that narrative, I think, took hold and you only have to go back and look at some of the early news coverage, in particular columnists and people offering opinions in the media, it was quite clear that the public was primed to believe that this was something that the RCMP was trying to cover up and these four officers were at the centre of this and I think it became sort of the narrative that carried through the inquiry as well. We now know from the Braidwood inquiry his condemnation of those four officers was definite and quite clear. He didn’t use the word lie, but he used a lot of synonyms to describe those four officers, their character, said they were self-serving, they were unbelievable, and that is something that carried through to when the special prosecutor then looked at the evidence and decided to charge each of them with perjury for what they testified to at the inquiry.”

Ackermann: I have to admit, Curt, reading this book made me reflect on my work as a journalist and how we can be quick to look for black and white hero and villain characters in a given story. Is there a lesson here for journalism?

Petrovich: “I’ve been a journalist for over 30 years and I can count on one hand the number of stories that I’ve been permitted to actually dig deeply into and those are the stories that actually matter to me personally. It’s asking way too much of any single journalist to be able to stick with a story for more than 10 years, to attend every day of four separate criminal trials, to interview scores of people, to try to analyze evidence and facts that span more than a decade. Nobody can do that on a daily basis. I’m not surprised that this narrative developed about what happened and will likely persist because the Braidwood inquiry report will live forever and that report makes it very clear these four officers are liars, even though the criminal courts have raised serious questions about that. And even though a book like Blamed & Broken raises even more questions about that. The one thing that it confirmed for me is that you can’t base everything on a single incident, you can’t base truth on simply showing up to a verdict of a trial and reporting the judge’s decision. That’s only a small window into what actually happened. I think we all have an obligation as journalists to try to dig as deeply as we can and provide the context and the analysis and to keep asking questions when the answers we get are either unsatisfactory or there are no answers at all. I’m not suggesting that it’s easy to do. This has probably been the single toughest story that I’ve ever pursued in my entire career, simply because it took so long and it just required such effort over time, but I did that because I thought it was important. Robert Dziekanski died, four police officers have been…their careers have been essentially derailed, their reputations ruined. Another police officer committed suicide and I don’t want to leave out the fact that, as I make the point in the book, Orion Hutchinson, who smashed into Monty Robinson’s Jeep one night a year after Robert Dziekanski died, he died as well. And the point I make in the book is that, had this narrative not occurred about the vilification of these four officers, I sort of lay out how I think Orion Hutchinson would still be alive as well. This is about people’s lives and I felt a sense of responsibility to try to get it right or as right as I could get it because I played a role in this as well, covering the story. I just don’t think I would have slept well if I had just sort of written it off as just another story about somebody dying, maybe we have the answer and maybe we don’t. I just felt I had to set the record straight as best as I could and Blamed & Broken is my effort at that.”

Blamed & Broken is published by Dundurn Press.