Officer testifies he wasn’t required to enter cell to check on inmate who died

HALIFAX — A special constable facing criminal charges in an inmate’s death testified Monday it wasn’t his duty to enter the cell and attempt to rouse an impaired man lying with a spit hood covering his mouth.

Const. Daniel Fraser told a jury this was because a police manager had confirmed to him those steps were solely required in “high risk” cases, and Corey Rogers’ condition didn’t meet his understanding of this term.

Fraser and Const. Cheryl Gardner are on trial in Nova Scotia Supreme Court for criminal negligence causing the death of Rogers on June 16, 2016.

Fraser testified he knew Rogers was drunk and couldn’t answer most questions, but he said it would have been out of the ordinary for him to enter the jail cell and check if the inmate was conscious.

“He seemed to be sleeping it off,” he testified in the jury trial.

“You have your own little set of red flags you look for …. He (Rogers) didn’t meet any criteria I normally look for.”

However, the constable said under cross-examination that he wasn’t aware of a formal definition of “high risk,” and he told prosecutor Chris Vanderhooft he used his own criteria.

Fraser said he considered a prisoner was a high risk if he had a head injury or was bleeding, if he couldn’t stand or if he was drifting in and out of consciousness.

He said he based his decision in Rogers’ case partly on the opinion of an arresting officer that Rogers was “playing possum” after three officers carried him into the booking area and laid him on the floor at about 11 p.m. on June 15.

Rogers refused to stand up and was carried to the cell and left lying face down in the barren, narrow unit known as a “dry cell.” He wore a spit hood, a mask that prevents prisoners from spitting on guards.

The Halifax resident was in custody for being drunk in a public place, after he rapidly downed a half bottle of whisky outside a children’s hospital the day after his child was born.

Fraser testified he didn’t consider it necessary to call paramedics when Rogers was admitted, or during the next two hours and 40 minutes as he lay on the bare floor of a cell. The special constable called for help just before 1:40 a.m. after entering the cell and removing the spit hood from Rogers’ face.

The jury has viewed video of Rogers heaving in the cell while wearing the spit hood, and an autopsy states the heaving suggested the inmate had vomited into the mask, and he died from suffocation.

Fraser testified he wasn’t aware the spit hood was on for over two hours, even though it could be seen on a video screen of the narrow cell.

The officer said that it later troubled him that he didn’t notice the spit hood and added that he believed the hood was a shirt that Rogers had pulled over his face to keep warm.

The officer said that in the past, prisoners always had removed spit hoods on their own after officers put them on.

Special constables are employed by the police department and are appointed to specialized duties as peace officers, including the booking of prisoners, but they are not considered police officers.

Fraser said he’d been a corrections officer and a navy clearance diver before starting at the police force in 2004, and had only received one week of formal training before starting to learn on the job. He testified he no longer works as a booking officer, but is still employed by the Halifax police.

He also said that his supervisor had told him that stricter standards brought in after 2012 would apply only to those deemed “high risk.”

Three years after the death of Victoria Paul in 2009 in a Truro, N.S., police cell, the Nova Scotia government brought in changes requiring higher levels of checks of inmates in police lockup cells — a process called the “Four Rs.”

The “Four Rs Observation Checklist” was posted in the entry room of the Halifax police station’s cells, the trial has heard.

The first “R” stands for “rousability,” and says: “Go into the cell. Call their name. Shake gently.” The second “R” stands for “response to questions,” and suggests asking, “What is your name? Where do you live? Where do you think you are?”

The third “R” stands for response to commands, gauging whether the inmate can open their eyes or lift their arms. The final “R” is remember, and suggests booking officers take into account the possibility of other illnesses.

The Crown has alleged the peace officers failed to follow those steps.

But Fraser testified he had told the police sergeant who supervised him it was impossible to enter cells and follow the procedures due to the large number of prisoners and his other responsibilities.

“None of us were following the policy because we couldn’t. It was physically impossible,” he testified.

“He (the supervising sergeant) finally said to me, ‘Continue doing as you’re doing, doing the 4 Rs for people you consider high risk.’ That made sense to me.”

In his cross-examination, Vanderhooft noted that on the night Rogers was brought in, the shift wasn’t especially busy. The prosecutor also asked the witness why he considered the policies could be ignored.

When shown instructions saying that spit hoods shouldn’t be left on prisoners if there was a danger of vomiting, Fraser said the special constables ”never bothered” to read these instructions and weren’t instructed to do so.

The defence is scheduled to continue calling witnesses on Wednesday.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 5, 2019.

Michael Tutton, The Canadian Press

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