Saskatoon

'Engaged' jury at Joshua Megeney inquest asks at length about Saskatoon SWAT team practices

"It's unfortunate that the jury is better at cross examining than I am," said Scott Spencer, the lawyer hired by Megeney's family to probe the narrative of what happened the day Megeney was shot by a member of Saskatoon's SWAT team.

6 civilians listening to police accounts of shooting ask dozens of wide-ranging questions

Josh Megeney died during a police standoff on Oct. 6, 2016. (Facebook )

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'It was my decision': SWAT team leader defends call to ram bedroom door in fatal 2016 standoff

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Six civilians are doing more than hearing evidence about how Saskatoon SWAT team members came to shoot an armed Joshua Megeney during a tense standoff.

They're asking questions. Lots of them.

"It's unfortunate that the jury is better at cross examining than I am," said Scott Spencer, the lawyer hired by Megeney's family, on Wednesday. 

The inquest into Megeney's October 2016 police shooting death has heard from four Saskatoon police officers so far. 

Three of them are members of the force's tactical support unit and testified that they saw Megeney, 28, pointing a rifle at them before two of the officers fired their own rifles.

Officers have described a tense and fast-moving situation in which, after more than an hour of trying to verbally coax an unseen and barricaded Megeney out of an upper-floor bedroom without the help of the force's crisis negotiation unit, they rammed the door (to try to better make out Megeney's voice) and saw Megeney pointing his weapon. 

"Every person who barricades himself is a threat to me," said Const. Joel Lalonde, the first officer to alert others that Megeney possessed a gun apparently pilfered from a bedroom safe that proved less secure that initially indicated to police.

After seeing Megeney with the rifle, "I really, really believed he was going to come down the stairs and there was going to be a gunfight," Lalonde added. 

At least 30 questions asked

The jury — four women and two men drawn from the Saskatoon judicial centre — has directly asked at least 30 questions of Lalonde and other SWAT members. 

Coroner's inquest juries are asked to rule on four things: how, when, where and by what means a person died. They're also encouraged to recommend how to prevent similar deaths in the future. It's not a process to assign blame, but rather a fact-finding exercise. 

The Megeney jury inquest questions have focused partly on officers' training and the options they felt they had in dealing with an obviously-agitated Megeney that day.

Once Megeney was contained to the bedroom and the rest of the house was cleared, why didn't officers go outside, asked the female jury foreperson on behalf of the group.

"The problem we have, and this is common… is the person trying to make the call outside can only make decisions based on what they're hearing on the radio," whereas officers need to be taking in "the sights and smells," said Const. Blake Atkinson, one of two officers who fired on Megeney.

Jurors asked if police couldn't have gotten Megeney a phone.

"It would have been extremely difficult in this circumstance," Lalonde said. Aktinson previously told the inquest that the wooden deck leading to the bedroom window looked like it could buckle under the weight of heavily-dressed officers and that officers might have been put in the line of fire. 

Relying on street experience 

At one point, the foreperson asked Atkinson if there was anything he thought should be recommended, "not to accuse anyone or be critical."

"From this incident specifically, I think our service has looked into some other things and acted on it. We've gotten some more tools," said Atkinson, adding that he couldn't get more specific without betraying police tactics. 

The tools would help to "get more intelligence to us police officers that are going inside the room, to be as general as I can," he added. 

Do tacticians receive specific training in crisis negotiation? 

"I don't have anything other than 14 years of dealing with people in this situation," Atkinson said.

Would police benefit from such training?

"I'll always say yes to more training," Atkinson replied.

Sgt. Tom Gresty, the last witness of the day and a former veteran member of the tactical support unit, disagreed when asked the same question.

"No, that's their expertise is tactics," he said. "In order for us to do that would be muddying the waters. I think what we're doing here is the right way."

"You negotiate every day of your career," Gresty continued. "We're using the gift of gab far more than use of force to respond to situations, to deescalate situations. We receive that training when we [go to] police college, we take verbal judo."

'This one broke me down' 

Jurors also asked about the mental health supports available to officers. 

Lalonde said Megeney's shooting took its toll.

"This one broke me down afterward," he told the jury. "It took me some time to get back to being somewhat normal. I've had conversations with my wife where I'm apologizing to her because I'm not the person she married." 

Coroner's counselor Robin Ritter said, "Not all juries are as engaged as this jury seems to be. And seldom do they ask such insightful and intelligent questions."

Sometimes there's no interaction between inquest juries and witnesses, even though jurors are allowed to ask questions — a unique feature of the inquest process.

During the last Saskatchewan coroner's inquest into a fatal police shooting — the RCMP shooting of Brydon Whitstone in North Battleford — the jury didn't pose a single question. 

That incident shared a number of similarities with Megeney's. Whitstone was fatally shot before he could be taken into custody, was described as agitated and, like Megeney, was found to have crystal meth in his system. 

There were intimations of suicide-by-cop in both cases.

The Whitstone jury came away with only one recommendation, asking the RCMP to consider using Tasers or other devices before resorting to lethal force.

Some inquests have ended with a lengthy list of recommendations: the inquest into the death of Shauna Wolfe — who was found dead in her cell at a provincial correctional centre — drew 17 recommendations from the jury.

For all the effort expended, however, the system has its limitations. 

Coroner's inquest jury recommendations are not binding. Parties that have not provided their responses are prodded by the Ministry of Justice within six months.

Less lethal options

Wednesday's second-to-last witness was Murray Roe, a former Regina Police Service member who helped craft Canada's national use-of-force model.

Roe said it's important to have as much information as possible about a suspect, and to use that information before using force — "if you have time."

Earlier in the inquest, Spencer asked Constable Jesse Jackson, whose bullet is believed to have struck Megeney in the head: "You've got a suspect who wants to call his mom. Why wouldn't you back up then and get him a phone?" 

"There wasn't enough time," Jackson said.

'This is far, far out of control'

A heated exchange capped Day 3 of the inquest.

Sgt. Tom Gresty, the former veteran member of the tactical support unit, was asked by Spencer if things might have ended differently with Megeney had officers not rammed the bedroom door in and instead waited for negotiators to arrive. 

"I don't think there's anything they could have done differently — period," said Gresty.

When Spencer expressed dissatisfaction with that answer, Ritter stepped in.

"My problem is my friend doesn't like the answer," said Ritter.

Gresty then elaborated.

"They needed the opportunity to [end the situation without violence] and they didn't have that opportunity here."

"Because they breached," Spencer said.

"Madame coroner," said Saskatoon Police Service lawyer Bruce Wirth, "this is far, far out of control."

The inquest resumes Thursday at 9 a.m.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Guy Quenneville

Reporter at CBC Ottawa, originally from Cornwall, Ont.

Story tips? Email me at guy.quenneville@cbc.ca or DM me @gqinott on Twitter.

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