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More ASIRT transparency, oversight urged in wake of refused cases

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Laura Hawthorne remembers that October day a year and a half ago.

It changed her family's lives.

"My child was just playing on the playground. The police were called, and now he is traumatized for the rest of his life," Hawthorne told CTV News Edmonton, recalling the time when her son, Ryley Bauman, was playing at a park near his grandparents' home.

The now-18-year-old is socially non-verbal and functions at the age of an eight-year-old.

Police on that day in 2022 arrested and detained the autistic teen on suspicions of drug use.

"The amount of distress he was in, it's incomprehensible," Hawthorne said.

The arrest triggered an investigation by the Alberta Serious Incident Response Team (ASIRT). In an eight-page report, investigators detailed how distressed Ryley was during the arrest, reporting he "kicked the door and hit his head against the partition between the seats repeatedly" and "hit his head on the cell door four times," which resulted in police holding him down "by kneeling on him" to sedate him.

"He went through more than any human should ever have to go through, never mind a 16-year-old boy with autism," Hawthorne said.

ASIRT investigators found there were "reasonable grounds to believe that an offence may have been committed" by the responding officers, said their report.

ASIRT referred the case to Crown prosecutors to decide whether charges should be laid. Prosecutors declined.

"There is still no accountability," Hawthorne said.

"It blows my mind that they can get away with the things they are getting away with."

Defence lawyer Heather Steinke knows that devastation well. ASIRT asked prosecutors to consider excessive force charges against an Edmonton police officer who kicked her client, 18-year-old Pacey Dumas, in the head, leaving him with life-altering injuries, including a hole in his skull.

"To have someone say, 'Yes, you have been harmed,' and then the ultimate decision that comes from the Crown's office is, 'But there will be no justice served,' it's devastating," Steinke said.

'Needs to be a more transparent process'

She said she believes the minister's office needs "to conduct a review of the decisions made in these cases and the overall process for decision making for prosecution moving forward."

"I think the decision-making should be taken to an independent Crowns office, or it should go directly to a hearing before a judge, just a preliminary hearing of the evidence," Steinke said.

"It needs to be a more transparent process for there to be change."

Prosecutors declined charges in Dumas's case, and again in another one.

In the case of Steven Nguyen, Edmonton police shot and killed him in June 2021.

At the time, officers said someone reported a man with a knife. It was later determined Nguyen had a cell phone in his hand, not a weapon, despite ASIRT finding "reasonable grounds" an offence was committed.

No charges were laid.

"He was somebody to somebody. An uncle," Melisa Solano, Nguyen's sister, said last month after prosecutors decided they were not going to pursue the case.

"What happened wasn't right. It wasn't fair. We want justice for Steven Nguyen."

Criminologist Dan Jones says a lot of taxpayer money and trust goes into ASIRT, yet between 2015 and 2020, only about a third of cases where the agency found grounds of an offence were charges laid.

"People need to start questioning that. Why is the Crown seeming to be fearful of charging police?" Jones, the justice studies chair at NorQuest College, told CTV News Edmonton.

"We are going to start losing faith in our legal justice system, not just from a perspective of police legitimacy, but the system in its entirety when people aren't being held accountable."

Jones is joined by criminal defence lawyers calling for more oversight and transparency into prosecutors' decisions. They also want ASIRT to be given more power.

"Giving ASIRT the ability to lay charges would be a fantastic step," said Chad Haggerty, a criminal defence lawyer in Calgary.

"That same mechanism could happen in Alberta. It just requires political will."

Mickey Amery, Alberta's justice minister, declined multiple interview requests, with his office telling CTV News Edmonton in a statement he "will be reviewing practices surrounding the relationship between ASIRT investigations and prosecutions to determine if there are policies or practices we might explore to help ensure that the processes are improved."

A spokesperson for the Alberta Crown Prosecution Service says it "will provide its full cooperation with this review."