Documents obtained by CBC News cast doubt on the RCMP's sincerity in vows to get to the bottom of the Taser-related death of Robert Dziekanski, according to a civil rights group and the lawyer for Dziekanski's family.
The case that ignited international debate and led to a number of probes into the use of stun guns by police forces, including an inquiry called by the B.C. government, an internal investigation by the RCMP and an investigation by the RCMP public complaints commissioner.
From the day the Polish immigrant died at the Vancouver International Airport on Oct. 14, 2007, after RCMP officers zapped him with a stun gun, RCMP e-mail exchanges obtained by access to information requests suggest the force moved quickly to create a strategy.
The strategy involved all answers being vetted in Ottawa, including ones described by RCMP Commissioner William Elliott as "tough or dirty questions" from the media.
But the e-mail exchange between the RCMP in British Columbia and the force's headquarters in Ottawa in the aftermath of Dziekanski's death have prompted questions from a civil rights group and the family's lawyer, which they say calls into question the RCMP's public vows for transparency and accountability in the case.
A day after the release of an eyewitness video of the events leading up to Dziekanski's death, the RCMP commissioner called the four officers involved in the incident and expressed his support, according to the partially redacted e-mails.
"I have just now placed calls to all four members. I spoke to three of the four," Elliott wrote in an e-mail dated Nov. 15 to Gary Bass, the RCMP deputy commissioner for the Pacific region.
"I know this is tough on you and all our folks in E Division. Please be assured of my ongoing support," Elliott wrote.
Commissioner's calls a 'big hit'
Bass responds the next day, writing that the commissioner's calls "were a big hit" at the Richmond detachment where the four officers work.
In another e-mail from Bass, dated Nov. 24, he describes bumping into B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell at the airport, saying the premier also expressed support for the officers and the continued use of Tasers. Campbell said Wednesday that he offered support out of compassion for the officers, not as a signal he was siding with them.
The e-mails also suggest that a number of senior RCMP officers were worried about being crucified in the media but felt the four officers at the airport - who were called to help deal with Dziekanski after he apparently became agitated from spending 10 hours at the airport - had acted properly.
'Pat on the back' not appropriate, critic says
The B.C. Civil Liberties Association and a lawyer representing Dziekanski's mother say they're worried about the comments.
Walter Kosteckyj, a lawyer representing Dziekanski's mother, Zofia Cisowski, said that given multiple investigations into the officers' actions, the commissioner should not have picked up the phone to reassure members they were on "safe ground."
"[Cisowski] took everybody at their word that their would be a full and frank investigation. And it appears that from the get-go there was at least some indication that this was more about monitoring the press rather than jumping into that investigation in an independent way," Kosteckyj told CBC News on Thursday morning.
Robert Holmes, president of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, said Elliott's personal calls to the four RCMP officers were inappropriate.
"I don't know how many other people in this country who were under investigation for the use of force that they applied in whatever the circumstance might be, get a phone call from the head of the RCMP giving them a pat on the back," Holmes said Wednesday.
The RCMP did not respond to questions from CBC News on Wednesday about the e-mails.
Premier 'complimentary' of officers: Bass
The e-mail written by Bass on Nov. 24 indicates that Campbell was "highly complimentary" of the police force despite the fact Dziekanski's death was still under investigation.
The e-mail was addressed to Elliott and Bill Sweeney, an RCMP deputy commissioner and special adviser to the commissioner.
"I just ran into our premier at the airport and we had a great 20-minute discussion on this issue generally.... He was highly complimentary of the force, disappointed over the degree of criticism and wants to support the members involved somehow," Bass wrote.
"He [Campbell] asked me to think about what he could do in this regard.... He supports the continued use of Taser and any other tools which support and protect our members.
"He said the inquiry will not be a negative attack on the force but a focused examination of all the issues," Bass wrote.
The B.C. Taser inquiry, headed by retired B.C. Court of Appeal justice Thomas Braidwood, was called after Dziekanski's death.
This first phase of the inquiry, which ended in May, focused on Taser use, as well as deaths and injuries associated with the weapon. Numerous medical experts expressed concerns about the risks, while police officers testified Tasers save lives.
The second phase of the inquiry, which will begin in October, will focus on Dziekanski's death. Crown prosecutors have not made a decision about whether charges will be laid in the incident at the Vancouver airport.
An offer of personal support only: premier
Holmes said the premier's private comments are troubling because they are at odds with his public condolences to the Dziekanski family.
"In the background we have him talking with someone inside the RCMP in a fashion that would suggest it's all a masquerade," Holmes said.
Kosteckyj said Campbell's conversation with Bass raises questions about his objectivity as the premier.
"I would have serious questions about those comments in those circumstances," Kosteckyj said.
Campbell responded to criticism by saying some of the details of the meeting are unclear, but he intended only to offer a private statement of support.
"I would be, you know, it would be nice to offer them personal support. It had nothing to do with whether we were getting to the bottom of the situation. That's why we were having the inquiry," Campbell said.
As for his support for Tasers, Campbell said if the inquiry recommends the weapons be abandoned, it's something his government will consider.
With files from Kurt Petrovich
© 2008 CBC News