The second day of a coroners inquest into the death of a Port Alberni teen was an emotional one, as the court played CCTV footage of Jocelyn George’s time in a police cell.
George, 18, died of heart failure in hospital in Victoria on June 24, 2016 after transfer from police custody at the Port Alberni RCMP detachment. She had spent a day and a night in custody.
With the permission of George’s family, the court played CCTV video from George’s cell on the morning of June 24. The footage shows George moving slightly on the concrete floor while paramedics come in to check on her. Cst. Beth O’Connor enters the cell and places a blanket over George before providing her with water.
O’Connor said she was “definitely concerned” about George’s physical condition as she was cool to the touch, lethargic and providing mumbled responses.
Cst. Jason Patovirta was the watch commander of the Port Alberni detachment on June 23 when George was brought into the detachment for the first time. He assessed George at around 4 p.m., after which he decided to release her from police custody. Patovirta explained that at the time, George was able to hold a conversation with him and was moving with coordination. He made the decision that she was able to care for herself and she was released.
“There was no legal authority to keep her there,” said Patovirta.
A little more than an hour later, the RCMP received a call from a “concerned” complainant that George was causing a disturbance at a residence. According to the complainant, George was screaming, yelling and hallucinating that people were chasing her with guns. Patovirta attended the call with O’Connor and discovered that George was displaying “much different symptoms” than she had when she had left the detachment an hour ago. She seemed confused, uncertain of her surroundings and unable to answer questions, said Patovirta.
“What I was seeing at this time was vastly different,” said Patovirta.
Patovirta contacted George’s mother, who was taking care of George’s children at the time. Given George’s condition, her mother did not want George in the house around the children.
Both officers made the decision to contact paramedics to have George checked out before she was taken back to the detachment. One of the paramedics, Jonathan McDowell, told the court that he spoke with George while she was in the backseat of the police cruiser and checked her vitals. Her blood sugar was not concerning, he said, and she didn’t appear to have any injuries. Her blood pressure was slightly high, but this was not unusual “under the circumstances” of being arrested, said McDowell.
He offered to take George to the hospital, but she refused. “She was quite adamant that she didn’t need my help,” said McDowell.
Another paramedic, Kevin Head, recalled George being “slightly evasive” when asked about drug use.
After George was taken back to the detachment for a second time, Patovirta made the decision to put George in an open cell (colloquially known as the “drunk tank”), which has no furniture other than a sink and toilet. Patovirta said this was to prevent a fall, suffocation or any other safety issue.
In the morning of June 24, Patovirta checked on George and found that her behaviour had not changed overnight. She was moving her arms and legs, said Patovirta, but she was not coordinated. Her voice was “low and muffled” and he couldn’t understand her. When he offered her water, he noticed that she had a “very dry” mouth. At this point, he suspected a medical emergency and called 911.
Coroner Margaret Janzen asked Patovirta if, as the watch commander, he had received any additional training about alcohol withdrawal and drug detox. Patovirta replied that he had not received this training from the RCMP.
“I think it would be helpful that every single police officer have this training,” he said. “You can’t understand something unless you’ve lived it or or unless you receive the training and experience.”
Coroner’s counsel John Orr noted that during her first arrest period on June 23, George went almost nine hours without being checked on by a watch commander. Since George’s death, he said, some policy changes have been made at the Port Alberni detachment about how often prisoners should be checked on. These will be discussed later in the inquest.