Police lacked 'common sense' handling N.S. man who suffocated in Halifax cell: lawyer

·4 min read

HALIFAX — A 41-year-old man who died in a Halifax lockup cell wasn't treated with basic common sense by police officers, the family's lawyer argued Wednesday during closing statements before a police review board.

The province's medical examiner has said Corey Rogers died of suffocation while lying face down in a cell with a spit hood covering his mouth on June 15, 2016, as he appeared to be vomiting.

Halifax police conducted an internal investigation following Rogers's death, but it's unclear how the officers were disciplined, if at all. Rogers's mother, Jeannette Rogers, has asked the review board to impose stronger disciplinary measures against constables Justin Murphy, Ryan Morris and Donna Lee Paris for their roles in arresting her son and leaving him in a cell wearing the hood.

Jason Cooke, the lawyer for the Rogers family, told the three members of the Nova Scotia Police Review Board the officers should have realized when Rogers was arrested outside a Halifax children's hospital that he was highly intoxicated and it would be risky to leave him alone in a cell wearing a head covering. A spit hood is used to prevent a person from spitting or biting.

Cooke likened the hood to a potentially dangerous tool at a hardware store, for which the safety instructions should be read before it is used.

"If you choose to use a tool, you have to use it properly," the lawyer told the review board Wednesday. "Everyone knows how it (a spit hood) works. It's purpose-built to resist fluids. It has an inherent danger."

Cooke said the fact Rogers was extremely intoxicated and pounded his head against a Plexiglas divider in the police car indicated there were clear signs his health was at risk, adding that police should have taken him to hospital rather than jail.

The mandate of the hearing is to examine whether the officers breached regulations under the Police Act, including whether they neglected or lacked concern for the health or safety of the detainee, acted in a manner that could bring discredit on the police and used unnecessary force or treated a prisoner cruelly.

The Halifax police's internal review concluded Murphy had breached all three standards. They said Paris had failed to uphold the standards of caring for the prisoner's safety and had brought discredit on the police force. And they concluded Morris had committed a single count of bringing discredit on the police force.

The review board will provide a written decision on the Halifax police's findings, and if it determines officers had breached the rules, the board will hold a separate hearing on penalties.

Rogers was arrested in 2016 outside a Halifax children's hospital in a state of extreme intoxication after he downed a half-pint of whisky following the birth of his child.

Brian Bailey, the lawyer who represents Murphy and Paris, noted that Morris, the least experienced of the three, was the officer who made the arrest and transported Rogers to the police lockup.

Bailey said his clients had checked the police vehicle in which Rogers was transported to see if there were any signs he had banged his head in the car — such as traces of blood — and they allegedly didn't find any.

In addition, Bailey said the officers handed control of Rogers to two booking officers at the station, but he said they agreed to carry him to a cell because he wouldn't walk. It was up to the booking officers to remove the spit hood if it posed a danger, Bailey told the review board.

Bailey said measures that could have been misconstrued as unkind were, in fact, efforts to help, such as when Murphy threw the prisoner's shoes into the cell. The lawyer said Murphy wanted to ensure Rogers would have his shoes when he woke up from his intoxication.

"He (Murphy) was trying to do the man a favour," the lawyer said.

James Giacomantonio, the lawyer for Morris, said the actions of the police constables were reactions to Rogers's resistance to entering the station or walking to his cell, adding that the man's behaviour may have "misled" his client's understanding as to how intoxicated Rogers was.

He also noted there was never any clear evidence presented that Rogers had a head injury or that he was intoxicated enough to warrant alerting paramedics.

The case has been in the headlines for years in Halifax, with Jeannette Rogers saying police had mishandled her son and they need to drastically improve their treatment of highly intoxicated prisoners.

In January, the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal ordered a new trial for two special constables at the Halifax lockup, Daniel Fraser and Cheryl Gardner, who were convicted in November 2019 of criminal negligence in Rogers's suffocation death. The original trial had focused on whether Fraser and Gardner had properly followed policies on the frequency of checking the prisoner.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 8, 2021.

Michael Tutton, The Canadian Press

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