Death in drunk tank spurs call to stop arresting intoxicated people

Drinking was how Corey Rogers — whose alcoholism started when he was a teenager — celebrated the birth of his daughter.

It’s also what led to his arrest for public drunkenness outside the IWK Health Centre in June 2016. The 41-year-old died in the Halifax Regional Police lockup three hours after he was arrested.

Last month, two booking officers were charged with criminal negligence causing death in the case, and three arresting constables are now being investigated under the Police Act.

Alternatives to arrests

Jeannette Rogers, Corey Rogers’s mother, is calling for alternatives to the drunk tank — a plea that has support from the legal community, people in addiction recovery and street health workers.

“People who are highly intoxicated don’t belong in jail,” said Rogers, a retired psychiatric nurse who has spent the year and a half since her son’s death poring over policies and procedures.

Corey Rogers

Corey Rogers died in June 2016 after being placed in the police lockup. (Jeannette Rogers)

Dalhousie University law professor Archie Kaiser agrees that an alternative to jail should be explored.

“They’re people who have made perhaps a bad choice on one night or maybe they have substance problems,” said Kaiser, who also teaches in the university’s department of psychiatry.

6 drunk people a day locked up

From January to the end of November, police in the city arrested and placed 1,894 people in the drunk tank. That’s almost six people a day jailed for Liquor Control Act violations.

For prisoners who need medical assessments, police officers call paramedics to attend the lockup.

Whether it’s severe intoxication in a person who drank excessively for the first time or in someone who has a chronic addiction, the potential harm can be the same — injury, violence or asphyxiation.

Kaiser is in favour of a change to the Liquor Control Act “to ensure that the least restrictive option is chosen and the most health-promoting option is chosen by the police” before the person is taken into custody.

He’d like to see the law changed to require police to release a person to a sober adult who can look after the individual or to a treatment centre, such as a sobering centre.

Sobering centres, which exist elsewhere in the country, are where police can take people who are drunk or high on drugs instead of a jail cell. Intoxicated people can get assessments, shelter, food and access to services at the centres.

‘Cold, dirty, lonely’

To be sure, a night in a police cell has kept many out of harm’s way.

Just ask Curtis Aitkens. The Sydney native started drinking alcohol when he was 14. He’s now 37, and estimates his alcoholism has led to approximately 100 nights in the drunk tank.

“They probably have saved my life or I wouldn’t be here today,” he said.

Curtis Aitkens

Curtis Aitkens estimates he’s spent about 100 nights in the drunk tank in Cape Breton. This is his fourth stay at an alcohol recovery home. (Robert Short/CBC)

Still, he resents the “cold, dirty, lonely” experience of being in a jail cell, where he felt he was regarded as a nuisance. 

And he said access to detox is among the helpful services not available during a night in the lockup.

Wine as treatment

Another option is a managed alcohol program (MAP), where chronic alcoholics are given an hourly dose of wine to deal with alcoholism, along with shelter, food, and medical care. Eight cities have a MAP, but there are none east of Ottawa.

Patti Melanson, team leader at MOSH (Mobile Outreach Street Health), supports medically managed alcohol. She said that type of treatment can help people with long-term addictions who live on the street — many of whom are cared for by MOSH.

Patti Melanson

Patti Melanson is the team leader at MOSH, which provides people who are homeless with health care.

“We know that there has been some improved quality of life for people, and ultimately that’s what we should be trying to seek,” she said. “You start to end up with control in your life.” 

Joe Gibson, the executive director of Freedom Foundation, an abstinence-based recovery home in Dartmouth, would “love to see a managed alcohol program with options for recovery, including detox,” he said.

He said treating a severe alcoholic with a dose of wine gives them another day to decide whether to keep drinking or make the decision to try to quit.

Joe Gibson

Joe Gibson is the executive director of the Freedom Foundation, an alcohol recovery home, in Dartmouth. (Robert Short/CBC)

“Maybe somewhere along the line he’ll say, ‘I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired. I’ve had enough,’ and will decide to go through the other door into detox,” he said.

Gibson said what’s clear is that chronic alcoholics who are non-violent should be cared for by health workers, not police.