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Monday, July 13, 2009

Police quickly turned to Taser, inquiry hears

July 13, 2009
By JEFFREY SIMPSON, Chronicle Herald

Halifax Regional Police threatened a mentally ill man, then almost immediately Tasered him during an altercation and later doctored a report about the scuffle, a lawyer alleged Monday at an inquiry into the death of Howard Hyde.

Enhanced audio from a surveillance camera in the booking room of police headquarters on Gottingen Street was played Monday for the first time at the inquiry in Halifax.

The altered recording — in which background music playing in the booking room at the time was removed so dialogue could be heard better — captures what sounds like a police officer’s menacing comment to Mr. Hyde, possibly about using a Taser on him, just before the men come crashing into the camera’s field of vision.

“What I hear is someone saying, ‘You’re going to be doing the effing dance next, Howard,’” Kevin MacDonald, a lawyer representing Mr. Hyde’s sister and her husband, repeated after the sound clip, using a benign substitute for the actual expletive.

Mr. MacDonald suggested the voice belonged to Special Const. Greg McCormick, who Tasered Mr. Hyde in the scuffle that followed.

Mr. Hyde died 30 hours later while still in custody after struggling with correctional officers at the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility in Dartmouth.

The 45-year-old musician had been arrested early in the morning of Nov. 21, 2007, while wearing only his boxer shorts. His common-law wife had reported that he had hit her at their Dartmouth apartment.

Mr. Hyde, who had schizophrenia and hadn’t been taking his medication for weeks, was initially calm and co-operative after the arresting officer, Const. Jonathan Edwards, now 23, took him to police headquarters.

But a scuffle broke out between Mr. Hyde and three officers — Const. Edwards, Special Const. McCormick and Const. Ben Mitchell — while he was being booked, and he was jolted with the stun gun seconds later.

Mr. MacDonald questioned why the three officers, each of whom is over six feet and 200 pounds, would grapple with the smaller Mr. Hyde for only two seconds before resorting to the Taser.

The lawyer said Special Const. McCormick did little to help regain control of Mr. Hyde, who was on the floor apologizing, before reaching for the Taser as soon as Const. Edwards suggested it.

“We can see that he did nothing — he didn’t lay a hand on him,” Mr. MacDonald said.

“He goes right for the Taser.”

Mr. Hyde somehow got away from the officers after being Tasered, jumped a desk and darted into a hallway that led to an exit. The camera monitoring the booking room picked up some audio from the adjacent area as the officers caught up to Mr. Hyde.

“Did you hear someone say to Mr. Hyde, ‘Shut your effing mouth’ when he’s in that hallway?” Mr. MacDonald asked Const. Edwards, again substituting for the swear word.

But the inquiry was unable to listen to any further audio from that part of the scuffle because the rest of the audio recording from the booking room video is missing.

Also unaccounted for are about 30 minutes of surveillance footage of Mr. Hyde in a holding cell before the fracas.

There is grainy video of what happened in the hallway as officers struggled to put handcuffs on Mr. Hyde and so-called zap straps on his legs.

Mr. Hyde’s heart stopped beating at some point during that part of the scuffle. He lost consciousness and police revived him using CPR before paramedics arrived and took him to hospital.

Mr. MacDonald suggested that if the three police officers had tried working together to regain control of Mr. Hyde without resorting to the Taser, they might have been successful. Mr. Hyde had his hands up at one point and apologized throughout the melee, the lawyer said.

Mr. MacDonald pointed to several passages in Const. Edwards’s report on the altercation that were identical to those in the report filed by Special Const. McCormick, who wrote his an hour earlier.

“I’m going to suggest today that you went in and used and doctored McCormick’s statement,” Mr. MacDonald said to Const. Edwards.

“These are identical words — they’re his words.”

Mr. MacDonald told reporters outside the courtroom that at least half of Const. Edwards’s report matched that of his colleague.

“I don’t know why they would do that,” he said.

“It’s a significant issue and they have to be able to justify what they’ve done.”

Const. Edwards said he didn’t recall looking at his colleague’s report before writing his own, and he asserted that his written account matches his recollection of events.

Mr. Hyde apparently started to resist the officers when they produced a utility tool with a serrated blade to cut the drawstring of his shorts, in keeping with rules for the lockup.

Const. Edwards told the inquiry for the first time on Monday that Mr. Hyde had reached for the tool, contradicting another report that Mr. Hyde had pulled away.

“I’m very skeptical to see that come out at this late stage,” Mr. MacDonald said of the new information.

Just before the scuffle, Const. Edwards can be heard on the surveillance recording telling Mr. Hyde to “take a seat there, Bud.”

“You seem to have frustration in your voice,” Mr. MacDonald said while questioning the officer.

Const. Edwards said he wasn’t frustrated and defended how quickly he and his fellow officers resorted to using the Taser. He said Mr. Hyde was overpowering them and was next to an unlocked drawer containing knives, scissors, screwdrivers and a sledgehammer.

“He was beyond control,” Const. Edwards said.

“He may be saying, ‘I’m sorry,’ but his legs and body are saying, ‘I’m getting up.’”

Const. Edwards said he couldn’t tell who was swearing in the surveillance video but was certain it wasn’t himself.

“I don’t believe swearing at prisoners is appropriate,” he said.

“Sometimes it does happen.”

The inquiry is examining how police and correctional officers handle mentally ill people and is trying to determine what happened to Mr. Hyde.

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