Probe of Halifax cell death hears of unclear policies on use of spit hoods
Halifax police lacked training or written procedures on spit hoods at the time of a cell death five years ago, an officer who audits policies testified Monday during a hearing before the Nova Scotia Police Review Board.
Jeannette Rogers is alleging before the board that three arresting officers didn't properly handle her son Corey Rogers when he was brought to the station so drunk he couldn't stand and had to be carried to his cell.
According to the medical examiner, the 41-year-old man died of suffocation on June 15, 2016 while in a barren cell with a spit hood covering his mouth as he appeared to be vomiting. Spit hoods are normally used to stop someone from spitting or biting.
Sgt. Stephen Gillett, an internal audit and oversight officer with the Halifax police, testified Monday about police policies on handling lockup prisoners. Jeannette Rogers has alleged that constables Ryan Morris, Donna Lee Paris and Justin Murphy failed to follow proper police procedures and argues the discipline they've received to date is insufficient.
However, Brian Bailey, the lawyer for Murphy and Paris, pressed Gillett on whether there were clear policies on the use of spit hoods.
Trial evidence has indicated the arresting officers had placed the hood on Rogers after his arrest outside a Halifax children's hospital, where he had been extremely intoxicated following the birth of his child.
Video shown at Monday's hearing showed a groggy Rogers being carried into the booking area and the three arresting officers bringing him into the cell, where he was placed on the floor with the spit hood still covering his face.
Gillett said there were no clearly stated rules on how to use the spit hood in such situations. "There was no policy," he said during his testimony, adding there was also no training on use of the spit hoods at the time. He said that since Rogers' death, training on use of the spit hoods by booking officers has been instituted.
Special Const. Stephan Longtin, a booking officer with the Halifax police, also testified there was no training available at the time, even though spit hoods were used regularly.
"It was just a tool. Something to prevent us from being spit at," he said.
Still, Jason Cooke, the lawyer for Jeannette Rogers, asked Longtin to read the warning and instruction on the spit hood.
"Improper use (of spit hoods) may result in serious injury or death, asphyxiation, suffocation or drowning in one's own fluid," said Longtin, reading the label.
Gillett also cited the police force's policy on admitting extremely intoxicated prisoners to the lockup, saying "that's on the same scale as somebody they (paramedics) think is having a cardiac arrest." He said in such cases, the policy suggests the person should be taken to hospital for a medical assessment.
He said responsibility for the well-being of the prisoner appears to shift to the booking officers after the prisoner is brought through "a red door" into the cells, but "it's not a super clean line" of responsibility in cases where the prisoner is escorted to the cell by an arresting officer.
Ted Murphy, the lawyer for the Halifax Regional Municipality, noted there is a policy that arresting and booking officers should "work in collaboration" for the safety and security of prisoners admitted to the facility. Gillett said the collaboration referred to the discussion between officers on whether a person should be admitted to cells or sent to hospital for care.
During cross-examination, Bailey read the sections of the policy that give discretion to arresting officers and booking officers on when they call paramedics. Gillett agreed that booking officers and arresting officers are not compelled to send intoxicated persons for emergency treatment if the person involved "can be easily aroused to a state of alertness."
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 the suffocation death.
The police review board hearing is expected to continue Tuesday with further expert testimony and testimony from the officers.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 21, 2021.