Corey Rogers was either in need of medical attention or being purposely uncooperative the night he died in police custody, the Nova Scotia Police Review Board heard on Wednesday.
Rogers, 41, was arrested for public intoxication outside the IWK Health Centre in Halifax following the birth of his child in June 2016. Three Halifax Regional Police officers — constables Ryan Morris, Justin Murphy and Donna Lee Paris — placed a spit hood over Rogers’ head and brought him into the drunk tank at police headquarters. With the spit hood left on in his cell, he later vomited and suffocated.
Months later, an internal investigation found that the three officers breached the code of conduct in the provincial Police Act Regulations. All three were found to have acted “in a disorderly manner or in a manner that is reasonably likely to bring discredit on the reputation of the police department.”
The investigator also found that Murphy and Paris “neglected or lacked concern for the health and safety of a prisoner in her custody,” and that Murphy “abused his authority by using unnecessary force or cruelly treating a prisoner or any other person with whom he came into contact in the course of his duties.”
Rogers’ mother, Jeannette Rogers, appealed the decision, seeking a decision finding all three officers in default of the three sections of the code, and ultimately seeking the officers’ firing. It’s unclear what, if any, punishment the three officers have received.
Lawyers representing Rogers’ mother, three Halifax Regional Police officers, and the police department made their oral closing arguments in the case on Wednesday after hearing testimony over five days in June 2021. Each of the three officers testified, along with a sergeant in charge of training, a booking officer, and a use of force expert. The board also watched video of the three officers booking Rogers and bringing him into his cell. The lawyers made written closing arguments in August.
Jason Cooke, one of the lawyers representing Jeannette Rogers, argued on Wednesday that the officers should’ve known Rogers was extremely intoxicated and needed medical attention.
Cooke cited evidence that one of the officers, Morris, watched Rogers down a half-pint of Fireball whisky in front of the IWK. And the original call to police from staff at the IWK indicated Rogers was “extremely intoxicated.”
“In this case, the three officers left Corey Rogers in a state of very real and material risk and that risk was entirely avoidable. A reasonable police officer at the time would have or should have known that. And they should have known that without the benefit of hindsight. I want to make this point clear at the start. This case is not about hindsight,” Cooke said.
“What the officers should have known, and should have conducted accordingly, was really through the application of good old-fashioned common sense. Instead, despite their training, and despite the best practices, requiring ongoing assessment, the subject officers were fixed to a perspective that apparently precluded the possibility that Corey Rogers was intoxicated to a point that exposed medical risks.”
Cooke argued the officers should’ve sought medical attention for potential head injuries as well, after Rogers repeatedly smashed his head off the Plexiglas barrier in the back of Morris’ cruiser.
James Giacomantonio, lawyer for Morris, argued that a “hindsight bias” had “crept into” the hearing, and there was no way the officers could’ve known at the time what would happen to Rogers.
“There is no evidence that a reasonable police officer, who’d examined the forehead of a person who’d been striking their head a few times a few inches away and didn’t see any abrasion, should’ve taken any action or been concerned about head injury,” Giacomantonio said.
Giacomantonio argued Rogers wasn’t extremely intoxicated, and suggested his death was his fault because he didn’t follow the officers orders when they brought him into the drunk tank.
“He was given a number of opportunities by these officers to comply. He refused to comply. And that’s what started the cascade of bad luck that led to the untimely death of Corey Rogers,” Giacomantonio said.
“I say with some respect, a reasonable member of the community who was now learned all there is to learn about this tragedy would know that Mr. Rogers himself had a part to play here, that it was his actions and his choices to be difficult and to not respect the officers’ authority that led to the spit hood being put on him, that led him to be carried into the [drunk tank] and then the cell.”
Asked about those comments following the hearing, Cooke told reporters they “didn’t sit well” with Jeannette Rogers and her legal team.
“How can it be his fault that they neglected his health and safety while he was in their care?” Cooke asked.
The board also heard arguments from lawyers Brian Bailey, on behalf of Murphy and Paris, and Ted Murphy, on behalf of Halifax Regional Police.
Bailey argued the officers believed spit hoods were just a “benign piece of protective equipment,” pointing to testimony that indicated they’d never received training on their use, nor had they read the instructions printed on the package.
Murphy argued the officers aren’t doctors, and don’t know when someone is so intoxicated they need medical attention.
The case is now with the three-member panel of the review board. There’s no timeline on a decision.
After the public closing arguments on Wednesday, Giacomantonio, Bailey and Murphy were to participate in an in camera hearing of the board related to the internal disciplinary process from this incident.
As per the Police Act Regulations, that process is carried out in secret and is separate, but the evidence used at the public review board hearing will also be used in that one.
Meanwhile, the booking officers working in Halifax Regional Police cells the night Rogers died, special constables Cheryl Gardner and Daniel Fraser, are scheduled to face a new trial on charges of criminal negligence causing death in March 2022.
Gardner and Fraser were previously convicted, but that decision was overturned on appeal in January.