REGINA — The Regina Police officer who fired the shot that killed Geoffrey Morris during a police standoff in 2019 spoke about the incident today, saying that he struggled with the decision but saw no other option.
Corp. Devon Sterling, who was a constable at the time of the incident, gave his testimony of the events that led to Morris’s death in May of 2019, when he was fatally shot during a hostage situation in an apartment on Halifax Street.
Sterling, who has been with the RPS for 16 years, spoke during the second day of a public inquest investigating the circumstances of the Regina man’s death, instigated by the provincial coroner’s office as mandated by law.
Sterling testified that he had hoped for a different outcome from the situation, but felt it was his duty to protect alleged hostage Jasmine Papaquash and he didn’t feel Morris was willing to de-escalate and allow her to be removed from harms way.
“I can only say to the family that it is not what I wanted. I’m sure that I’m going to be a face you hate forever, and I have to live with that,” he said, addressing the family of Morris’s that was gathered.
“You just can’t explain the thought process as well as the burden of having to take a life. Again, I didn’t want to do it, but that was my job that day,” he said.
Other witnesses also spoke on Tuesday, including the two RPS crisis negotiators who were on scene, the toxicologist who processed Morris’s case, and the paramedic that pronounced Morris deceased on site.
Toxicology reports indicated that Morris had alcohol and methamphetamines present in his system at the time of death, as well as amphetamines and less than one nanogram of fentanyl.
RCMP toxicologist Kimberly Norris said she could not speculate whether Morris was experiencing intoxication from those drugs, or to what level.
Monday’s witnesses included the five patrol members from the Regina Police Service who first arrived on scene at the apartment, where Morris was reported to have been holding Papaquash hostage at knife point, and the forensics officer who processed the scene.
Negotiation tactics were unsuccessful: RPS negotiators
RPS crisis negotiators Const. Chelsea Kotylak and Const. Karlene Phillips were on scene during the incident, arriving about an hour after patrol officers and about half an hour before Morris was shot.
The RPS crisis negotiation team typically operates as a team of five, said Phillips during her testimony, but only two were present that morning.
Phillips said the team’s leader made the decision to operate with a smaller team that day, and she and Kotylak decided that Phillips would take the lead in negotiations.
Her testimony echoed what officers said the day prior, that Morris was agitated and unwilling to engage directly with her as she spoke to him. She said she offered several different “safe plans: to Morris, but he didn’t respond to any.
She used the term “closure motivated” to describe Morris, meaning he did not seem interested in a conversation with police or with any of the options that Phillips was offering.
“He didn’t give me an option to engage. I was speaking the whole time,” said Phillips. “In order to build a negotiation, you have to have someone willing to talk with you.”
She also said she didn't hear Morris say anything about wanting to commit “suicide by cop” while she was in the apartment. That information had been relayed to her by another officer when she arrived on scene and was briefed.
Phillips said she did feel like her skills were proficient to be in that situation, but that there was nothing else she could have done to alter the outcome.
“There was absolutely nothing more that we wanted, was for him to drop those knives,” said Phillips.
She said that since this incident, the crisis negotiation team now only responds to calls as a full unit of five, although the official policy within RPS regarding that procedure remains unchanged.
Sterling describes his decision in detail
Sterling shared a detailed timeline of events leading up to his decision to shoot Morris, and said that he felt he was adequately trained and prepared to make the decision he made.
He said he and his patrol partner arrived at the apartment shortly after responding officers called for further help over radio, and was present on scene for the majority of the incident.
He was one of several officers there who had training to operate in the SWAT team, although he was not still a member of that unit at the time.
Sterling said that a conversation with superior officers on site negated the idea of entering the apartment from outside through the window due to noise.
Sterling was the only officer present in the apartment with a carbine rifle, and he said that Sgt. Guy Criddle had said to him that he would have to “end this because no one else can,” using his own judgment.
“It was hard to make up my mind, and I didn’t want that call to end this way,” said Sterling, during his detailed testimony.
Sterling also shared that in years he’s served as a member of the RPS, he’s discharged his firearm only twice while on duty, outside of training.
In answering counsel questions about his decision to shoot Morris, Sterling said that he felt that he would not have been “doing [his] job properly” if he had not done something to stop Papaquash from being harmed.
He also said he struggled with the decision, as he was not able to verbally communicate with the negotiating officer and the assembled officers were not using radio to communicate because the noise was allegedly upsetting Morris.
“I felt like I was on an island,” said Sterling. “I was truly hoping for this whole instance, at some point in time, that he would set down the knives.”
Sterling also said he was concerned he “would be judged” for being a Caucasian officer firing at an Indigenous civilian.
Sterling testified that he felt sure that Morris was not contemplating any of the negotiator’s offers to de-escalate the situation. He said he made the decision to fire his gun when he saw an opportunity to do so that wouldn’t harm Papaquash.
He also said that had Morris put down the two knives or allowed Papaquash to leave the room, a different outcome would have very likely been possible.
Following the incident, Sterling confirmed that he was placed on administrative leave for approximately a week, before returning to regular duty at his own request. He said RPS administration offered him more time, but he refused.
Since the incident, Sterling confirmed that he has received mental health support from the RPS and has also chosen to seek out a therapist of his own volition.
Family members spoke during questioning
Morris’s mother, who chose to remain unnamed to media, stood up during questioning to describe Morris as “not a bad person, he was loving,” and said that police had “only seen the worst of him.”
She also asked why there isn’t more Indigenous and Metis representation in the RPS, as she felt that it would be beneficial in situations like this, and indicated she thinks more cultural training is needed for officers.
The inquest will continue through the rest of the week at the Atlas Hotel in Regina, concluding on Friday with a final judgment and possible recommendations from the jury.