Warning: This story contains graphic content that may be disturbing to some readers. Discretion is advised.
The Regina police officer who fatally shot a Regina man testified on Tuesday at an inquest into the man’s death.
Geoff Morris was 41 at the time of the incident on May 4, 2019. Several police officers have testified that Morris was holding his fiancé hostage that day.
Morris was sitting on the couch with a wooden steak knife in each hand, at times standing and raising the knives in the air. He had his legs wrapped around his partner who was facing him, officers testified.
The purpose of the inquest is to determine how, where, when and by what means Morris died. It is also meant to inform the public about the circumstances of the death.
While there are jury members selected for the inquest, their role is not to find fault or blame, but rather come up with recommendations on how to prevent similar deadly outcomes in the future.
Const. Chad Mazurak was the first to testify on Tuesday. He was a member of the SWAT team at the time of the incident and was asked to bring what’s known as a less lethal shotgun to the scene. The weapon is modified with orange paint to distinguish it from lethal weapons and fires “soft rounds.”
The weapon is designed to incapacitate a suspect when shot at a certain distance — 75ft at maximum and 20ft at minimum — Mazurak explained. Officers are trained to use the weapon on certain targets of the human body. Mazurak explained a less lethal shotgun could become lethal if shot at someone’s chest or head.
Mazurak said the less lethal shotgun was not practical in this situation, as he was close to the minimum distance and was concerned if it did hit Morris, it would only set him off more.
Mazurak testified that he will never forget the incident, but a woman’s life was saved. He said he offered words of comfort to Cpl. Devon L. Sterling — the officer who shot Morris — at the time.
“You saved a girl’s life today,” he recalls telling Sterling after he was assigned to escort him back to the station.
Another police officer who was at the scene from the initial stages to the time of the shooting testified on Tuesday, describing the situation as stressful and chaotic.
“I believed he was going to kill her,” Const. Ryan Williams said, in reference to the victim.
Crisis negotiators on scene
There were two crisis negotiators who were called to the scene that morning.
They got to the scene around 6:55 a.m. Morris was pronounced dead around 7:20 a.m.
Const. Chelsea Kotylak and fellow team member Const. Karlene Phillips were both present in the apartment room, with Phillips acting as the primary negotiator and Kotylak as support.
Both Phillips and Kotylak testified that Morris was “closure motivated,” not seeing any other ending to the situation. Kotylak said it seemed like Morris was saying his goodbyes.
Kotylak said they were trying to engage with Morris and also tried to learn about his family and if he had any kids, but said it was tough to do with only two negotiators.
“It was the worst day of my career,” Kotylak said about the incident. She added it’s something you don’t want someone’s family to go through.
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Kotylak said the team does have access to a psychologist who can be present in situations like this one. She said she called the psychologist 15 minutes after arriving at the scene but said it was not soon enough for them to get there before the situation escalated. The psychologist would have also needed time to be briefed on the situation before going into the room.
Phillips was trying to engage with Morris at the scene but said it seemed he didn’t want to talk. She described his emotions and behaviour as “unpredictable” from crying, to angry, and said it appeared he was smirking at one point.
At one point he stood up with the knives still in his hands and said something along the lines of “are we going to do this?” Phillips recalls. Morris was communicating with Phillips and she noticed he had a cigarette; she asked him if he needed a lighter.
As a non-smoker, Phillips did not have a lighter handy but told Morris she was working on getting one. She added she would have needed approval from a sergeant before giving him a lighter. Phillips also asked Morris to put a knife down in exchange for the lighter.
“There was nothing more that we wanted than him to drop those knives,” Phillips recalled as she started to cry.
Phillips also testified that she offered Morris what is called a “safe plan” explaining that he could put down the knives, let his partner go, and walk towards police with his hands up to end the situation without anyone getting harmed.
Both Kotylak and Phillips said it would be helpful to have all five crisis negotiator team members available for future calls. Phillips said though this may not be written policy, the team has decided to respond with all members in future situations after this call.
After being told Phillips was working to get him a lighter, Morris got agitated and reacted with anger, Phillips testified.
Sterling was the last witness to testify on Tuesday. He was on regular patrol the morning of May 4, 2019, and has been serving as a police officer for nearly 20 years and was a former SWAT member.
Sterling said he decided to go to the call with his partner after it had turned from a typical disturbance to a hostage situation. Once he got there, Sterling testified that he started thinking of ways to get into the apartment to defuse the situation, such as repelling in from a balcony door or climbing up to the balcony using a ladder.
He said it was impossible to try either scenario due to the setup of the room and where Morris was positioned.
Sterling said he heard Morris comment that he was only leaving in a body bag.
Sterling got the attention of a sergeant inside the room and asked if he should get his carbine rifle, to which the sergeant officer responded he should.
Sterling brought the carbine into the room, stepping quietly and slung the rifle at his side in an effort to not agitate Morris, he testified.
He ended up in the kitchen with a view of Morris and his partner.
“I really don’t want to do this,” Sterling remembers thinking.
At one point, Morris heard the carbine move and looked up at Sterling, who backed up and leaned on a chair.
Morris started to get “amped up” and yelled “are you ready for this?” Sterling testified.
Sterling said a sergeant approached him and told him he would have to take the shot and end this, no one else could.
Previous officers and Sterling have testified pepper spray and tasers would be ineffective because they couldn’t get close enough to Morris.
Morris would get up to stretch every so often and was becoming more agitated, and a sergeant gave Sterling a head nod, he said.
Sterling said he was trying to breathe and noticed his hand shaking.
“It came to the point where I had to do my job and my job was to save (the victim),” Sterling said.
Morris came up and Sterling fired his weapon. He said Morris was quiet and his partner screamed. Police officers rushed to Morris and tried to handcuff him.
Several officers have testified they didn’t know Morris was dead when they tried to handcuff him.
Sterling told Morris’ family on Tuesday that this is not what he wanted to happen and he is sorry for their loss.
At one point, Morris’ mother stood up and addressed Sterling.
She said Geoff was kind, loving and caring and not a bad person. A Native or Métis person would not have talked to an all-white group of cops, she added.
“You guys just escalated it,” she said.
The inquest will continue throughout the week with other officers expected to take the stand as well as Morris’ fiancé.
If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency, please call 911 for immediate help.
For a directory of support services in your area, visit the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention.
Learn more about how to help someone in crisis on the government of Canada’s website.