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Looking beyond the Taser frenzy

To me, inquest shows police are clearly not a bunch of 'Quick-Draw McGraws'

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Michael Langan

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Michael Langan

When will we learn?

That question kept coming back to me last week while I took in the inquest into the July 2008 death of a Winnipeg teen hit with a Taser by a Winnipeg police constable.

It's been instructive for me — as a fact-finding process should be.

I was there at the William Avenue scene as the Free Press police reporter at the time. I arrived within minutes of Michael Langan being shocked by an officer in a back lane.

I remember the summer day distinctly. It was very hot and glaringly sunny. It was around rush hour.

And despite the urgency of what had just happened, my observations of the police response to the incident (the scene was taped off at a distance of about a half-block) appeared to be calm, orderly and controlled, just like virtually all others I've been to over the years.

The backstory of how Langan wound up there emerged pretty quickly. Langan was suspected of breaking into a vehicle at a business not too far from the scene and was followed by employees of the business, and police were flagged down to try to locate him.

I recall the police confirmed what happened pretty quickly.

Spokeswoman Const. Jacqueline Chaput met with reporters nearby within a couple of hours.

It was during the 6 p.m. suppertime newscasts. Two reporters from competing TV outlets went live, barking frantically over each other after Chaput finished speaking. There was a near-panic to get information out to the public.

This juxtaposition will always stay with me: At the actual scene of Langan's death, there was a bureaucratic calm; on its outskirts, a veritable frenzy.

That intensity would continue for days to come, despite considerable efforts by the Winnipeg Police Service to communicate appropriate facts, given there was an ongoing investigation by the homicide unit that would be scrutinized by an outside police service.

The police chief, then Keith McCaskill, made himself available to answer media questions about police accountability, as was a constable from the officer safety unit to explain police use of force, why Tasers are used and tactical procedures and protocol.

As if this weren't enough of an indication of how seriously the WPS took the incident, annual statistics on Taser use were provided for the public's scrutiny. They showed the weapons were most often simply used as a coercive device (just shown to a suspect) and not fired.

The seconds-long (I stress this) encounter Langan had with police that fateful day has always remained, at root, extremely simple.

Uniformed patrol officers rolled up on a theft suspect they knew nothing about.

He refused to drop a knife he was brandishing after they demanded he do so several times.

He was shocked by a Taser in response, fell to the ground and died.

It's sad, tragic and horrible that this happened at all. Yet the scrutiny and criticism about police conduct continued unabated for weeks.

Did police do enough to try to "de-escalate" the situation before firing the stun gun at Langan?

Could officers have subdued him in another way that would have kept him alive?

Also of note: Just two days after Langan's death, the WPS was defending itself against allegations the officers involved had somehow racially profiled the teen.

In addition, the Manitoba Metis Federation accused the officers directly involved of having a "Quick-Draw McGraw" mentality.

(I didn't see any representatives of the MMF at the inquest hearings, by the way, just a few reporters dropping in from time to time, along with members of Langan's still-grieving family and supporters and lawyers.)

Through the testimony presented, a few things have become clear to me.

One, despite the length of time it's taken to have a full airing of the facts, I'm grateful it's happening. I'm hoping Langan's family can find some small measure of comfort in finally hearing the sad details, as counterintuitive as that may sound.

Two, I don't see how anyone could conclude there was anything wrong with how Consts. Michael Temple and Ryan Naismith acted that day, given what they encountered and the limited information they had to go on.

Any notion they targeted the 17-year-old because of his ethnicity is absurd.

One must always remember, the Taser was meant to incapacitate Langan. They couldn't have known the weapon would somehow end up being implicated in his death.

Given the situation, I believe restraint was shown. The officers had the legal authority to shoot Langan with their handguns, but didn't.

And finally -- and I mean this with all due respect: No officer goes out on his or her shift hoping to be embroiled in something like this.

When will we learn?

james.turner@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 13, 2014 A1

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