Nova Scotia

Too few staff, too many dangers at Halifax police cells, says union

All too often there are only one or two people overseeing the booking cells at police headquarters in Halifax and that leaves both workers and people in custody vulnerable, according to the union representing police.

Halifax Regional Police Association asking police chief for more training, renovations

The president Halifax Regional Police Association is calling for more staff for the cells at police headquarters. (Robert Short/CBC)

The union representing hundreds of police officers in Halifax says all too often there are only one or two people overseeing the booking cells at police headquarters — leaving both workers and people in custody vulnerable.

Dean Stienburg, president of the Halifax Regional Police Association, wrote to Chief Dan Kinsella Friday, calling for increased staffing levels, more training for those working in the prisoner-care facility and changes to the design of the cell area.

"It's a dangerous place to work. We're dealing with aggressive, often drunk, illogical people," Stienburg said in an interview.

"Our members are concerned about liability, they're concerned about their own personal jeopardy, they're concerned about being physically injured. But they're also concerned about the fact that, you know, we have to take care of these prisoners and that's what we want to do."

Stienburg's letter comes in the wake of the recent conviction of two peace officers, Dan Fraser and Cheryl Gardner, for criminal negligence causing death, following the 2016 death of Corey Rogers.

Rogers was arrested for public intoxication and was wearing a spit hood, a fabric mask that covers the lower half of a person's face, when he died of asphyxiation by choking on his own vomit in a cell at police headquarters.

Corey Rogers, 41, died in June 2016 while in Halifax Regional Police custody. (CBC)

The case "set a new standard" and showed people in custody require more resources than are currently available, said Stienburg. He noted the Halifax police cells deal with about 2,800 intoxicated people a year, along with 3,500 other people arrested in criminal matters. There are 18 individual cells and two drunk tanks. 

"The reality is our members are nervous. This could have been any one of [them]," he said of the convictions.

Among other things, Stienburg wants additional training for how to use spit hoods, assess intoxicated people and employ fire extinguishing equipment.

Kinsella, speaking to reporters Monday afternoon, said he is reviewing prisoner care to make sure it's effective and safe. That includes looking at staffing, supervision and equipment — including spit hoods, handcuffs and leg restraints.  

"I'm taking a close personal look at it in its entity. Where there's gaps, we're going to fill the gaps to make sure we provide proper care for anyone that is taken into custody," he said. 

Dan Kinsella is shown at his swearing-in as Halifax Regional Police chief on July 5, 2019. (Brett Ruskin/CBC)

The union has already been pushing for increased staffing, so far unsuccessfully. Stienburg said the force moved away from having sergeants oversee the prisoner area decades ago and also shifted to hiring civilian peace officers, who are paid less than police officers.

He said half of the full-time staff are now on leave due to physical or psychological injuries they suffered on the job, leaving part-timers in the positions.

Stienburg wants to see a sergeant or corporal overseeing two staff members to make any big calls if they arise. He said reassigning a police officer to work in the cell area when it gets busy isn't adequate because it takes them away from patrol outside the station.

If a brawl breaks out or if there is a medical emergency, he said having people there to deal with it is crucial.

"We can't wait to call people in. It needs to be staffed appropriately. It's a high-liability area," he said.

In the fiscal year that ended March 31, 2019, paramedics were called to police cells within the Halifax area 987 times, said Emergency Health Services spokesperson Remo Zaccagna in an email. That averages nearly three calls per day.

Over a three-year span between 2014 and the end of 2016, the average was two calls per day.  

Request for staff with medical training

Stienburg also is proposing the force's management considering employing a medical professional who is able to monitor people in custody. He said having someone — whether it's a paramedic or a nurse — who is able to assess people's blood pressure and overall condition could go a long way.

"Simple medical procedures that will give you a better idea of what this person's health actually is. And are they in a health crisis or are they playing possum? Or are they just faking or are they just drunk and they're going to sleep it off?" he said.

Without that expertise, he said staff call EHS for help, and he expects they will be more likely to do so going forward due to concerns about not being equipped to assess people.

There's long been discussion of replacing the Gottingen Street police headquarters, which opened in 1974. Stienburg said the cells themselves are outdated, having never been updated. Too often when something goes wrong, officers must scramble to unlock a barred sliding door with "antiquated old keys."

"It also is a huge risk for the officers going in that you have six or eight people in that cell and there's one maybe two officers trying to get in that cell to break up a fight or something. You never know if the other prisoners are going to turn on them getting in and out," he said. 

"I'm not exaggerating in that letter when I said our booking officers have all had feces thrown at them. They've all had urine thrown at them. They've all had toilet water thrown at them and, you know, the solutions and the stuff that we do to mitigate it in my opinion are bandages."

The police association is calling for new locks that could open doors remotely. The doors of the cells are barred with a type of plexiglass installed to prevent people in custody from throwing things out of it.

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About the Author

Elizabeth McMillan is a journalist with CBC Nova Scotia. Over the past 10 years, she has reported from the edge of the Arctic Ocean to the Atlantic Coast and loves sharing people's stories. She can be reached at elizabeth.mcmillan@cbc.ca

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