Police did not cause death of 18-year-old woman in custody in Port Alberni: IIO

Police did not cause death of 18-year-old woman in custody in Port Alberni: IIO

Jocelyn George died in June 2016 while in police custody. File photo.

Jocelyn George died in June 2016 after spending the night police custody. File photo.

British Columbia’s police watchdog has cleared RCMP of any wrongdoing after an 18-year-old woman from Port Alberni died after spending the night in custody in June 2016.

The Independent Investigations Office (IIO) did not name the woman who died in its report but the BC Coroners Service and family members have previously confirmed that her name was Jocelyn George. She was a member of the Ahousaht and Hesquiaht First Nations and a mother of two toddlers.

The chief civilian director of the IIO reviewed evidence and released the decision Monday, saying there was no obvious evidence that George was in serious medical distress while in custody.

“Unfortunately, her death was caused by the impact of drugs on her heart. Even when medical attention was received, it was unable to reverse her condition.” MacDonald said in the report.

George was initially taken into custody at around 7 a.m. for being intoxicated in a public place, the report said. She was detained in RCMP cell after police were not able to find a safe location to take her. She was released at 4:23 p.m. that afternoon when the acting watch commander determined she could take care of herself. She was seen on CCTV at this time walking without difficulty.

A friend of George’s told IIO that George arrived unannounced at her residence an hour later. According to the report, the friend said George was shaking and had blue lips as if she were cold. The friend told IIO that George appeared to be hallucinating and stated she thought people were watching her.

The report stated the friend also said George was “not looking good,” which she attributed to George’s drug use. The friend was about to go out with at the time but was concerned about George, so she went to a nearby relative’s residence. The police were then called.

Two officers arrived and spoke with George’s relative. The report said the relative did not agree to take George into their care. One of the officers told the IIO that George, who was standing near one of the police vehicles, appeared to be under the influence of drugs, unaware of her surroundings and in a delusional state. That same officer called paramedics.

Shortly after 6 p.m. that same day, George was once again taken into custody. The report said that Emergency Health Services found she although she was intoxicated, she was medically fit. George was once again detained in an RCMP cell.

The report said the officer who had called paramedics told the officer in charge that George had not eaten for two days and they should “..push food and fluid.” The officer also said he would reassess George when he came back on shift at 7 a.m. the next morning. That officer told IIO he didn’t believe George was in any life-threatening situation.

The other officer who had taken George into custody that evening told a different officer to tell a guard that George needed food and water outside normal mealtimes due to her extended period in custody.

The first guard came on duty at around 8:45 p.m. when the second guard was about to finish his shift. The acting watch commander, or the officer in charge, was briefed by the guards. They told the officer in charge that George had only been out of custody for about an hour and she appeared to be intoxicated due to drugs. The officer in charge did not make a personal check, the report said.

The IIO said George was active periodically overnight and the cell had CCTV with several viewing screens at the guard station and more screens in the watch commander’s office. The report said, George at times laid down, sat up, stood up and walked within her cell. At 1:28 a.m., she leaned over the sink apparently drinking from the tap and then sat down. The report said she sat and up and laid down numerous times, with the last time at 3:29 a.m. when she sat up and leaned against the wall for approximately one minute.

The guard did do some checks outside the door, but the officer in charge did not do an in-person check, the IIO said.  At 2:08 a.m., the officer who had been told George needed food and water outside normal mealtimes passed along the message to the guard. The guard did not comply with the request.

At 6:01 a.m., the officer in charge spoke with the guard about releasing George from custody but the guard said the woman had not slept and was “still tweaking.” The officer then left.

Video between  3:29 a.m. and 7:25 a.m. shows George lying on the floor, next to a wall, and moving her arms and legs from time to time and occasionally rolling on to her side. At 7:25 a.m. the officer who said he would reassess George went into her cell and introduced himself. There was a limited response from George.

The report said a guard was told to get George toast and water, which was done. George was seen at 7:33 a.m. sitting up on her own.At 8:17 a.m., the guard told the officer who had gone into the cell George had not eaten. At 8:21 a.m., the officer once again went to George’s cell and offered toast and water, and helped George sit up. George took a drink of water. The officer told IIO he became concerned that George’s mouth was so dry and called paramedics.

George was taken to a local hospital. She was sent to Victoria’s Royal Jubilee Hospital by air ambulance and died from heart failure at 7:20 p.m. on June 24. The IIO was notified by RCMP at 1:35 p.m. and an investigation was started as George was in critical condition at that time and she had been in police custody when she was found in medical distress.

The purpose of the investigation was to determine whether an officer, through an action or inaction, may have committed any offence in relation to the incident that led to the death of George.

More specifically, the IIO had to consider whether the officer in charge failed to provide the necessaries of life during George’s detention.

The evidence included statements of six civilians including two first responders, statements and reports of four police officers, RCMP policy, CCTV of RCMP cells, George’s medical records, photographs of the scene, B.C. Emergency Health Services (EHS) related records and an autopsy report with a toxicology report. Officers who are the subject of an investigation are not required to submit their notes, report and data. The officer in charge declined to provide his statement or notes, reports and data.

RCMP requires the officer in charge to personally check on the guardroom and the prisoners at the beginning and end of his shift. The report said when the cell videos were reviewed, it was clear the officer did not perform personal checks on George.

“Although Officer 1 did not comply with policy requiring him to personally check on prisoners, there is no evidence to suggest that inaction on his part caused or otherwise contributed to AP’s medical condition and death. Had he checked on her, the evidence available does not suggest he would have noted anything to indicate she was in need of immediate health care,” the organization said in the report.

The report also said that although the officer did not ensure George was “awake or awakened” a minimum of once every four hours, as required for intoxicated prisoners in custody, it was apparent from CCTV that George was awake while standing, walking and sitting up.

“Thus she was awake for most of the night, and appeared to be sleeping for just under four hours,” the report said.

The report also stated the fact George did not earlier receive food or water did not play a role in her death. The cause of death was determined to be drug-induced myocarditis (inflammation of the heart muscle) due to the toxic effects of meth and cocaine. George’s minimal food and water intake was specifically ruled out as a contributing factor in the death.

MacDonald said in the report that since there was no action or inaction by the officer in charge or any other officer that caused George’s death, there are no grounds to consider any charges against the officer in charge or any other officers.

“Accordingly, as the Chief Civilian Director of the IIO, I do not consider that an officer may have committed an offence under any enactment and therefore, the matter will not be referred to the Crown Counsel for consideration of charges,” MacDonald said.

In 2016, George’s cousin Lee Lucas said he believed RCMP were well aware of the alcohol and drug problems his cousin had been dealing with. The family was also asking for an investigation into the way people with addictions are dealt with by police.

With files from CBC

Alexa HuffmanAlexa Huffman

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