Saskatoon

SWAT members who dealt with Joshua Megeney had no formal crisis negotiation training, death inquest hears

The police officers who encountered Megeney during a tense 2016 standoff did so without the on-site aid of crisis negotiators. Tacticians fired on Megeney when he pointed a rifle at them, they said.

Crisis negotiators did not make it to scene until after Megeney was shot in standoff, inquest hears

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

Const. Blake Atkinson knew him only as "Mike."

"Mike" was a man who had barricaded himself in the top-floor bedroom of a home on the morning of Oct. 6, 2016. 

For over an hour, Atkinson — a member of the Saskatoon police force's elite 20-member tactical support unit — attempted to coax the hard-to-hear, skinny-looking man who had identified himself as "Mike" out of the room — to no avail.  

Police initially thought "Mike" was just a burglar. Within minutes, however, the situation escalated very quickly.

'Gun gun gun!' 

Around the time they rammed the door of the bedroom so that they could create an opening and make out "Mike"'s voice more clearly, officers learned from the home's owner that a gun safe in the bedroom could be easily opened with a hammer. This, after initially being told by the owner that hunting rifles were secured in a steel safe. 

Then came a shout from Const. Joel Lalonde: "Gun gun gun!"

"I could see clearly that 'Mike' was holding a long-barrelled rifle," said Atkinson. The gun then swung toward Atkinson, he said. 

"I thought my head was going to blow off."

To protect himself, Atkinson fired two rounds from his semi-automatic carbine rifle, then heard another loud bang: a third round fired by fellow tactician Const. Jesse Jackson, who also saw a rifle pointed at them from the bedroom door.

Atkinson and Jackson would find out two key things only hours later: "Mike" was dead — fatally wounded by a bullet to the brain — and he was in fact Joshua Megeney, the 28-year-old man whose shooting death is the subject of an at-times-intense coroner's inquest that began Monday in Saskatoon. 

No formal training in negotiation

Among the insights offered by Atkinson and Jackson this week is that they were operating in a tense, high-risk situation without having the Saskatoon Police Service's crisis negotiation unit on the scene. 

"I'm not a crisis negotiator. It's not my field," Atkinson told the six-person inquest jury, which is tasked not with assigning blame in Megeney''s death but with recommending how to prevent deaths like Megeney's in the future. 

"I have no formal training on negotiations," echoed Jackson when asked by one of the civilian jurors about his training.

As members of the tactical support unit, officers like Atkinson and Jackson are trained to "contain and secure the scene with consideration to the safety of the public, the police and the suspects," according to the Saskatoon Police Service website. 

"Deployment of the Tactical Support Unit should not be considered an escalation of the situation, but rather maximizing officer and citizen safety. The majority of their work is done in the background and is unseen."

Ramming the door 

In the absence of negotiators, Atkinson frequently called out to Megeney to come out of the bedroom.

Atkinson thought he'd heard the sounds of someone moving furniture in the bedroom. It was so loud, Atkinson said, he thought there could have been a group of suspects in the room. 

Atkinson said he suspected Megeney was under the influence of crystal meth. (The forensic pathologist later confirmed there was methamphetamine found in Megeney's system.)

Meth has come to be involved in about 80 per cent of the patrol calls Atkinson responds to, he said. 

"It can make completely normal people do horrific things," Atkinson said. "Like a dog with rabies." 

Atkinson did not have an air horn and tried to speak softly, choosing words that were unlikely to "ramp up" Megeney, he said. His goal was to establish a line of communication with Megeney within a secured environment. 

First they had to hear each other. 

Before the door had was rammed and opened slightly, Megeney — when he did speak — could barely be made out by officers, said Atkinson.

"No dialogue," said Jackson, calling Megeney's voice "muffled." 

Ramming the door so that it created a slight opening "greatly improved our ability to communicate," Atkinson said. It also stood to give police an advantage.

"Once that security has been lost within that structure, people tend to just come out," he said. 

'Suicide or death by cop' feared

With a slight opening in the door now, Megeney was seen pacing side to side with a rifle.

"I'm thinking, 'Holy cow, this is not expected at all," said Atkinson.  

Jackson went to get his bulletproof helmet and when he returned, the other officers "had very worried looks on their faces." 

Megeney asked for a phone, Atkinson said.

"I want to make one last call to my mother," Jackson remembered him saying.

"The fact that he said the word 'last' made me think he wanted to get in a shootout with police," Jackson said. 

"It's one of those indicators that could be leading to suicide or death by cop," said Atkinson. 

Soon after, Megeney was seen by both Atkinson and Jackson pointing the rifle down toward them and they collectively fired three rounds at Megeney. 

They didn't know if they'd struck Megeney and retreated from the house.

A robot inserted through the bedroom window found Megeney's body hours later: a rifle lying across his legs, a box of 22-calibre ammunition in his back pocket and a dark chocolate bar in his right hand. 

It's still not clear what led Megeney to the house that day. 

A police robot found Megeney's body hours after he was shot. (CBC)

Relentless questioning

Scott Spencer, the lawyer hired to represent Megeney's family during the inquest, has questioned many of the police tactics used that day.

Chief among them: Why didn't officers simply retreat once they knew Megeney had a gun?

Atkinson said it came down to public safety.

"In experiences I've had, that would not be advantageous to anybody, especially to the public, to allow a person with a high-powered rifle more access to a structure once we've already cleared it," Atkinson said. "I can't say for certain what his next step would be."

Could a throw phone — a plastic-encased phone hardwired directly to a police line — have been provided to Megeney through the bedroom window?

Only the crisis negotiation unit had that tool, Atkinson said. 

The standoff happened in this home on Avenue Q North. (CBC)

Could police have simply sicced a K9 dog on Megeney?

"It's possible," said a skeptical-sounding Atkinson. 

Could police have waited for the meth to run its course and for Megeney to crash?

"I don't deal with the crash so much," said Atkinson. 

It was a fast-moving situation, Jackson added.

"You're talking about this as if we have a whole bunch of time to think about this. This is all within seconds," said Jackson of the moments that led to the shooting of Megeney, his voice rising to its most defensive register under the weight of Spencer's relentless cross-examination. 

'This is hard on me, too'

At several points Tuesday, presiding coroner Alma Wiebe was asked to caution Spencer against repeatedly asking officers the same questions over and over again because "he's not getting the answer in the way he wants the answer," as coroner's counsel Robin Ritter put it.

"This witness is not on trial," Ritter said of Jackson after one particularly brutal cross-examination from Spencer.

Atkinson sometimes laughed nervously when recounting the details of that tense day with Megeney, to the audible discomfort of Megeney's family members, who were seated in the front now of the small courtroom. 

After being reproached by Spencer, Atkinson said, "This is hard on me, too." 

About the Author

Guy Quenneville

Reporter and web writer for CBC Saskatoon

Story tips, ideas, complaints, just want to say 'Hi'? Write me at guy.quenneville@cbc.ca