Mother of man who died in police custody supports Halifax think tank project

Jeannette Rogers thinks that if there was a sobering up center in Halifax, her son might never have died in a police jail cell.

Halifax Regional Council will vote Tuesday on a proposed sobering center – a short-term recovery center staffed mainly by peer helpers – and which Jeanette Rogers says her son, Corey Rogers, would have benefited from on the night of June 15, 2016.

« In the long run, I think he could have gotten the help he needed, » Rogers said. « And he would have survived. »

Corey Rogers was arrested for public intoxication in June 2016 outside the hospital where his wife gave birth to their baby.

Officers said the 41-year-old spat on them, so they put a hood over his head and took him to a jail cell. He suffocated and died less than an hour later.

According to court documents, Rogers had a « long record » of arrest and jailing for public intoxication.

His mother believes that if he was taken to a facility where he wasn’t treated like a criminal, he could still be here today.

A proposed three-year pilot project ahead of Halifax Regional Council would see the municipality partner with the province to create a thought-provoking centre. The motion comes after two years of research and consultation by the Halifax Public Safety Bureau.

He recommends the creation of an establishment that can accommodate at least 10 people. Halifax and the province would share costs of approximately $278,000 this year and $980,000 each for the next two years.

Staffing would include peer support workers and culturally appropriate and inclusive supports, but there is no mention of healthcare professionals in the motion.

Corey Rogers, center, with his mother, Jeannette, and brother, Collin. Corey, 41, died in 2016 while in police custody in Halifax. (Submitted by Jeannette Rogers)

The goal, he says, would be to connect patients to appropriate services, reduce pressure on first responders and hospital emergency rooms, and stop criminalizing addiction.

« He really provides the right service, in the right place, by the right people, at the right time, » said Dr. Leah Genge, a family physician specializing in addiction medicine.

Genge works with the Mobile Outreach Street Health program in Halifax. She says she has seen the negative effects of the criminalization of addiction.

Dr. Leah Genge is a physician at Mobile Outreach Street Health (MOSH) whose patients are among the most vulnerable people in the city. She says Nova Scotia has a lot of work to do to improve addiction medicine. (Elizabeth Chiu/CBC)

« I see a lot of people who are hurting. Who have had incredibly difficult lives and continue to have incredibly difficult lives, » she said. « It all comes down to humanity. »

A big part of the outreach program’s job is to build trust with people who are reluctant to use the health care system, she said.

Genge has also worked with Alpha House in Calgary, a thought-provoking center that offers additional services aimed at homelessness, addictions and mental health treatment and resources to allow people to stay longer if needed.

« It was a safe place where people always knew they could go, wasn’t it? If they couldn’t go somewhere else, they could go there, » she said.

Genge says Nova Scotia’s current response to addiction isn’t good enough.

« I think we have a lot of work to do in the province, » Genge said. « We have a lot of work to do in all aspects of addiction care. »

The province’s chief mental health and addictions officer agrees.

“We have a long way to go, I think, to get to a place where we have everything addiction medicine providers would like to see,” said Dr. Sam Hickcox. « But we have come so far. »

Hickcox says he has seen significant progress in the 10 years he has practiced addiction medicine.

There are more doctors working in the addiction field, easier access to drugs like methadone, and there are new initiatives like the Overlook harm reduction housing project and recovery centers addiction and mental health, he said.

Hickcox says a sobering center is a good example of harm reduction that has worked in other jurisdictions and could work in Halifax.

“First and foremost, staff need to be empathetic and compassionate,” he said. Once trust is established, he said, the facility can be used as an entry point for other types of care and support.

Arrests while drunk in public

Hundreds of people are jailed each year for public intoxication in Halifax, according to Halifax Regional Police.

There were over 1,700 admissions in 2018 and almost 1,600 in 2019. This number fell to 528 in 2020.

Halifax Regional Police declined a request for an interview, but in a statement, a spokesperson said the department supports harm reduction and will work with community stakeholders to develop such initiatives.

The officers and cell guards who arrested Corey Rogers and put him in a cell did not follow policy.

They left Rogers lying on the ground with a hood over his head and did not watch him for several hours until they found him dead. Police place hoods over prisoners’ heads to prevent them from being bitten or spat on. Their use has been criticized particularly if inmates vomited inside the hood, creating a choking hazard.

There must be a better alternative than an empty concrete room, says Jeannette Rogers.

« We learned six years ago that it’s not always a good place for someone who is intoxicated. »


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