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Coroner's inquest: police involved in Geoffrey Morris’s death begin testimonies

The beginning of a public inquest into the police shooting of Geoffrey Morris in 2019 had officers testify that the fatal events were unlikely to have been deterred.
atlas hotel
The public inquest into the circumstances of the 2019 death of Geoffrey Morris at police hands began at the Atlas Hotel in Regina today, opening with detailed testimonies from police involved.

REGINA — A public inquest looking into the death of Regina resident Geoffrey Morris began today, with testifying police officers saying that they believe nothing could have changed the outcome of the fatal interaction.

Morris, 41 at the time of his death, was fatally shot by a Regina police officer in May of 2019, during an alleged hostage situation at an apartment on Halifax Street. 

It was the first incident in which a Regina police member fatally shot an individual to take place in almost 20 years.

The provincial chief coroner is required by law to hold an inquest into any death of an individual in police custody, according to the Saskatchewan Coroners Act, unless the coroner is satisfied the person’s death was not preventable.

Coroner Brent Gough is presiding over the inquest, which seeks to determine the circumstances surrounding the death and if future recommendations can be made to prevent the same situation in the future.

“This process is not designed to find fault,” said Gough, in his opening statements to those gathered on Monday.

He described the process as “investigational not accusatorial,” and said that the investigation would hear in-person testimonies from witnesses and view written statements, photos and other evidence.

Several calls have been made for a public investigation into Morris’ death, including from family members and the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, since 2019. 

Family has openly questioned the officer's use of force in the incident, and whether any other less lethal actions could have been taken to provide a different outcome. 

A total of 18 witnesses will be called as the inquest progresses, including RPS officers who were on the scene during the fatal altercation, crisis negotiators and SWAT members, and Morris’ fiance and alleged hostage Jasmine Papaquash.

A five-person jury, selected from pools of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous individuals, will provide a final verdict on the classification of Morris’ death as well as possible recommendations on how to avoid similar circumstances for the future.

Officer testimonies shared details of the incident

Warning: Some details included may be upsetting to readers.

According to the testimonies of several Regina police officers who were present at the time of the fatal incident, they believe nothing could have been done to prevent Morris’s death in the early morning of May 2019 as Morris was "set on a crash course." 

Patrol officers initially responded to a call from a neighbour about a domestic disturbance in the apartment in question. Five RPS members who were on scene during the altercation — four of which were the patrol officers who initially responded — told the inquest jury and audience that things progressed into a hostage situation immediately after they arrived. 

According to police, the four patrol members entered the apartment after hearing a loud scream, identified to be female, after knocking and announcing their presence with no response. 

They said they found Morris seated on the couch with Papaquash sitting at his feet. He was allegedly threatening her with two knives, holding them near her throat and face, and she was blocking most of his body from view.

Two officers first through the door testified that they heard Morris say, “I’ll kill her,” upon their entry, which prompted them to immediately draw weapons. 

Const. Jeremy Kerth was one of the responding patrol officers and the first to begin verbal negotiation with Morris. He was present in the apartment from the beginning to the end of the situation.

He said that during the entire altercation, Morris appeared “agitated and angry” and would not engage in dialogue with officers. 

“It was a one-sided conversation,” said Kerth, adding that Morris appeared to be talking to Papaquash quietly at times.

RPS crisis negotiators and trained SWAT members arrived on scene shortly, but the patrol officers said they didn’t feel as though attempts at verbal de-escalation were going to be successful. 

Kerth, and two other officers in the room, testified that that they heard Morris voice the phrase “suicide by cop” to Papaquash and later asked if she was “okay with God.”

“In my mind, he was talking about the end,” said Kerth.

Several officers who testified, including Kerth, said that Morris’ actions and words made them believe that he intended to die that morning at the hands of police.

“It made me worried, at the time, that he was going to do something to force us to use force,” said Const. Rylan Trithart, one of the responding patrol officers.

Const. Kyle Van Mulligan, also a responding patrol officer, testified that he heard Morris say he “wasn’t leaving without a body bag” and that Morris seemed to be in a “destructive place.”

In the process of talking to Morris, a senior officer reportedly learned that a child was present in one of the bedrooms in the apartment. It was unclear whether Morris first mentioned the child or if officers asked, but the child and a dog were safely removed from the apartment.

The atmosphere in the apartment alternated between tense and quiet, said testifying police, with Morris allegedly appearing very chaotic at times and then becoming very quiet and hunched over. 

Officers spent approximately an hour and a half attempting to de-escalate the situation by talking to Morris. The goal was to successfully talk him down to a place where he relinquished his weapons and released Papaquash, said officers, but they said Morris was not willing to cooperate. 

Kerth said that at approximately 7:20 a.m., negotiations had stalled almost entirely and Morris appeared to be “posturing up” to some kind of motion. This is when an officer on scene, positioned in the kitchen with a carbine rifle, shot Morris once in the head.

Kerth said that officers then took Papaquash away from Morris, as they moved him to the ground and handcuffed him, then checked for vital signs. 

Family present during the proceedings were audibly upset when this detail was shared, and questioned why officers would handcuff someone they'd just shot.

Both Kerth and another officer involved in the action said that, at that moment, they could not confirm if Morris was deceased and felt they had to secure him in case he was not.

Forensic investigation confirmed that only one shot was fired during the altercation, from a carbine assault rifle confirmed by reports and testimonies from officers involved.

The officer who fired the rifle is not set to testify until Tuesday, but a statement from RPS Chief Evan Bray following the incident in 2019 said that the officer felt afraid that serious injury was imminent and reacted.

All of the RPS members on the stand today were asked why less lethal tools on their belts— like a Taser, pepper spray, non-lethal shotgun or even physical force — were not used to subdue Morris.

All officers who spoke said they perceived Morris’ actions and behaviours to exhibit a threat level high enough to justify lethal force, and that other less lethal methods were not viable due to the circumstances of the situation — where police were situated and where Morris and Papaquash were situated in the apartment.

Trithart, who had his Taser out, said there was no angle for him to successfully fire at Morris, as Papaquash was blocking most of his body and there was no clear shot at Morris’ centre of mass.

The officer carrying the less lethal shotgun, which fires sock rounds intended to stun a target, was said to have been in a position near the doorway that also didn’t allow for a clear shot.

Officers also said they feared a failed attempt with a non-lethal method may escalate the situation and cause a more imminent threat to Papaquash.

"I didn't feel there was anything we could do until [Papaquash] was out of the way," said Kerth.

Const. Tyrell Diebert, who is a member of the Regina SWAT team and was on scene, also explained that due to the confined nature of the space, firing any other type of firearm like a handgun or shotgun would have had the same fatal result for Morris.

Diebert said that the carbine rifle used was the most accurate option available and posed the least threat to Papaquash.

Through counsel, the family also asked what kind of training RPS officers receive for both de-escalation tactics and handling situations involving mental health. 

Officers said that annual refresher training touches on basic de-escalation methods, while crisis negotiators specialize further in those topics than patrol officers. 

No clear information on mental health training provided by RPS was detailed.

All officers who testified said that they did not know of any other way that the situation with Morris could have been resolved with a different outcome, given the circumstances officers were in.

The inquest will continue through the rest of the week at the Atlas Hotel in Regina, concluding on Friday with a final jugement and possible recommendations from the jury.