The number of inmates locked up in the Ottawa police cell block has declined steadily over the past couple years after new policies and procedures were introduced in response to public outcry, which then led to a rise in lawsuits against the force, police say.

There are currently five lawsuits in Ontario Superior Court naming Ottawa police and seeking more than $4 million in damages.

The cases name 15 Ottawa police officers or special constables for alleged assaults in the Ottawa cell block at police headquarters on Elgin Street.

The case with the highest profile features Sgt. Steven Desjourdy, who faces one charge of sexual assault in connection to a 2008 arrest.

That case originated from the arrest of a woman for public intoxication, which was captured on surveillance video. The alleged victim’s name can't be released due to a publication ban. The verdict is expected April 3.

Microphones added to cameras

Not long after, the police made changes to how they deal with public intoxication and how they monitor people within the cell block.

In 2008 — the year of the infamous video incident involving Desjourdy — Central Cell block took in 11, 630 prisoners. Nearly 20 percent of these prisoners were brought in for being drunk in public.

As of last year inmate numbers have dropped to 7,100 prisoners. And the number of people brought in for public intoxication dropped to 747 in 2012. Public intoxication cases now account for 10 percent of all inmates who spend a night in the cell block.

Police have also added microphones to 108 cellblock surveillance cameras to help monitor each night and show a clearer picture of incidents that occur.

The cellblock's 63 cells also have up to five staff members, including a sergeant and up to four special constables.

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Judy Trinh (CBC)

One of those constables has to be a woman, according to Ottawa police. Tara Burke said she often fills that role. She said most potential inmates are arrested for public intoxication and they often raise the tension inside the cell block.

That often leads to unneeded stress and a higher likelihood of physical altercations, she added.

But Staff Sgt. Neil Preston is seeking to change that.

He was responsible for making changes to the cell block starting in 2011 and one of his first recommendations was to take more steps before putting an intoxicated inmate into a cell.

"We completely brought in a whole new system," Preston told CBC News.

Changes made to arrests for intoxication

Preston said suspects who are either drunk or high on drugs only spend the night in a cell if they pose a risk to themselves or others. Others are released to their families or a shelter.

He said helped reduce the number of prisoners held at the cell block in the past four years.

5 cell block lawsuits seek $4.025 million (as of June 2012)

  • Sgt. Steven Desjourdy (alleged victim's name under a publication ban).
  • Roxanne Carr is suing police for $975,000.
  • William Sarazin is suing police for $650,000.
  • Ernest Schuhknect is suing police, three officers allegedly involved and former chief Vern White for $700,000.
  • Michael Laraque is suing police for about $1.2 million.

"I remember times in here where there were multiple prisoners coming in here altogether...it creates a state of chaos," he said.

"That's not a recipe for success."

Preston said he reviews about 10 cell block use-of-force cases each month, which can range from grabbing an arm to pinning a prisoner to the ground. He said he reports any serious incidents to the professional standards division.

Criminal defence lawyer, Bruce Engel, said the cell block changes are a positive sign for an inmate's rights.

Engel is glad there is more evidence to show exactly who is at fault when incidents arise between officers and inmates.

"I've had trouble with the odd client who I'm supposed to assist," he said referring to the state of some inmates.

"I can only imagine how difficult they are with a police officer who might be coming off the ninth or tenth hour of a shift. [He or she] may not have as much patience in dealing with an unruly, drunk, foul-mouthed individual."