No charges against officers in arrest of autistic boy on St. Albert playground despite ASIRT findings

Alberta’s police watchdog found “reasonable grounds” for charges against police officers in the arrest of an autistic, non-verbal teenage boy in St. Albert in 2022, but Alberta’s Crown prosecutors did not.

The Alberta Serious Incident Response Team (ASIRT) released its decision Wednesday after investigating the Oct. 2, 2022, arrest of a 16-year-old at a playground in St. Albert, outside Edmonton.

BACKGROUND: St. Albert RCMP mistake non-verbal autistic teen for adult after arrest

ASIRT felt it was reasonable to conclude the three officers may have committed an offence because they incorrectly identified the teenager as intoxicated – whereas most witnesses observed he was likely neurodivergent. The officers also thought they were dealing with known drug users, which ASIRT says affected how they treated the boy.

“As required by the Police Act, this matter was referred to the Alberta Crown Prosecution Service (ACPS) for an opinion on whether charges should be laid,” ASIRT’s assistant executive director wrote in his decision.

The ACPS recommended no charges on Feb. 8. As a result, no charges will be laid against the officers.

“It is important to note that ASIRT and the ACPS are bound by different standards when assessing the viability of charges arising out of an investigation,” the police watchdog explained. “ASIRT, as the investigative body, applies a Criminal Code standard that determines whether reasonable grounds exist to believe that an offence has been committed.

“The ACPS, based on its internal policy regarding criminal prosecutions applies a standard which examines whether there is a reasonable likelihood of conviction arising out of the evidence, and whether it is in the public interest to proceed with a prosecution.”

WATCH: St. Albert RCMP arrest teen at playground

St. Albert RCMP received a report on the afternoon of Oct. 2 that a person with either “a severe handicap” or who was “tripping on some drugs” was alone at the playground of the St. Albert Lacombe School. The caller said the individual, described as being in his early 20s, wasn’t harming anyone but should not be left in the playground alone.

ASIRT says a first officer arrived and tried to get the boy’s name, but the teenager simply ignored him or repeated things. A witness felt the teen’s answers were characteristic of someone with a mental disability. The 16-year-old then left the park.

The officer told ASIRT he then checked the licence plates of vehicles in the adjacent lot and recognized the vehicle of a known drug user who lived in the area. In his file, he marked the subject of the playground complaint as that suspect.

When the teenager later returned to the playground, the initial police officer called for additional officers to attend the park. Two more officers arrived; they told ASIRT they were under the impression they were assisting with the arrest of a suspect who was high on drugs and known to be combative with police.

That led the three officers to converge on the 16-year-old, with two officers grabbing his arms from behind and handcuffing him, according to ASIRT. The boy started yelling erratically. Another civilian witness told ASIRT it appeared the teenager had a mental disorder and was not intoxicated.

In police audio of the arrest, the boy can be heard repeatedly shouting “it’s OK” and calling for his mother.

Police then went to the home of the “known drug user” who lived in the area, and that person came to the door.

Once inside the police vehicle, the teen gave unintelligible answers to the officers’ questions. ASIRT says the boy “kicked the door and hit his head against the partition between the seats repeatedly. (He) was extremely agitated throughout the drive to the detachment.”

The 16-year-old was then left in a jail cell, where he “pounded his fists on the door” and “hit his head on the cell door four times,” according to ASIRT’s report.

Roughly 30 minutes later, five officers and two paramedics entered the cell. The boy was on the ground and “the officers held him down by kneeling on him.

“While the paramedics refused to speak to ASIRT investigators, medical records show that a sedative was administered at this time.” The boy’s injuries were described as “mild swelling to the front of his head and redness on his wrists.”

While he was incarcerated, the family of the teen called RCMP about a missing person – unaware of the boy’s arrest – and that’s when police were able to identify who was in custody.

ASIRT investigators interviewed seven civilian witnesses, six police officers including the subject officers and the boy’s mother during the investigation. They also reviewed the teen’s medical records, and watched surveillance video from a nearby school, police vehicle video, and listened to all police and 911 communications.

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