Person described as 'erratic' in 911 calls and taken into police custody from local playground is teen with autism, family says
Alberta RCMP are reviewing a weekend arrest at a St. Albert playground, in which a 16-year-old boy with autism was reported as a drug user and put into a cell where he hurt himself, his family says.
Mounties confirmed in a news conference Wednesday evening – which was called to address "an arrest that has been the subject of public commentary" – that officers received multiple complaints about a man at the playground of Albert Lacombe Catholic Elementary School Sunday afternoon.
"Officers were unable to determine the identity of the male and due to the concerns for his safety and that of the public, he was taken into police custody. While in police custody at the St. Albert detachment, in the cells, the male began engaging in self harm. St. Albert RCMP officers immediately contacted EMS who attended and provided first aid before transporting him to the hospital," Insp. Ryan Comaniuk told reporters.
According to Comaniuk, the male was identified as the subject of a missing person report just before 7:30 p.m., about two hours after officers first located him.
'HE IS ONLY 16. HE IS AUTISTIC'
In a fundraiser to cover lawyer consultation fees, Edmonton woman Laura Hawthorne said she is the mother of 16-year-old Ryley who was detained by St. Albert RCMP.
The family is expected to comment on the matter through its lawyer on Thursday.
On GoFundMe, however, Hawthorne says the family was visiting Ryley's grandparents in St. Albert on Sunday. She described the playground as in his grandparents' "backyard."
"He is only 16. He is Autistic. He is not incapable of being unsupervised for small amounts of time, if he’s in a familiar place and within eye shot of us. He was alone on the swings for 28 minutes, while we finished dinner. The police swooped in, and picked him up over the span of 8 minutes. He was ambushed," Hawthorne wrote.
"He had handcuffs on, was in a jail cell. No way to communicate. Was screaming in the cell, and crying, and smashing his head on the wall, according to EMS. They also reported that Ryley had up to 6 police officers sitting on his body, in a prone position."
Ryley sustained soft tissue damage to his wrists and head and "much worse" emotional trauma, she said, adding they were at the hospital until 2 a.m.
The person at the playground was described as suspicious and erratic and was taken into police custody for his safety and that of the public, RCMP say.
"The initial information that we had was this individual was possibly impaired by drugs," Comaniuk said.
He could not define the "erratic" behaviour any further, or say if any children had been involved. RCMP do not expect to lay charges.
But the inspector and RCMP spokesperson Deanna Fontaine noted "several" 911 calls were made over the course of an hour.
"There were concerns for the safety of the public in the area. Which it is a playground, where there are children," Fontaine commented.
They also could not confirm if police used force during the detention.
"What we would say was [the individual was] cooperative, but wasn't able to provide information to the police in terms of his identity. In a sense. It's hard to explain," Fontaine said. "But during his time with the police, he did try to harm himself, which was concerning for the police. So when he was in our cells, we were very concerned for his personal safety and wellbeing and needed to call EMS. And then he became, like, — he needed to be treated in hospital."
More details about the 911 calls and circumstances of the arrest will be revealed in the RCMP review, she and Comaniuk noted.
'ROOM FOR LEARNING'
"The whole scenario is unfortunate. There are lots of possibilities in terms of what actually happened," acknowledged Autism Edmonton's executive director, Melinda Noyes.
But, she noted, "There's always lots of room for learning all the way around."
Her organization trains families, community members and law enforcement on the different ways autism, emotional dysregulation and even communication styles can look.
Both the public and public workers, like police, should be better informed about autism and other physical and mental health, Noyes believes.
"If you're working or interacting with somebody who is autistic, it is sometimes hard to ask that question or to know, and autism isn't the only thing that comes in different packages. Epilepsy is another one," she pointed out.
When working with police specifically, Autism Edmonton teaches how to help victims navigate the criminal justice system and what modifications might be helpful.
"Striking out or shrinking back is communication in and of itself, even though it's not verbal communication. Being able to watch for those communication signs is important but it's not always easy to interpret," she said.
In terms of what the public should know, she pointed out that an estimated one in 50 people has autism.
"It might be somebody who you might not notice, who you might not know, is autistic until something goes a little bit sideways and then you kind of wonder."
According to Autism Edmonton's executive director, it is not unusual for police to be called to deal with people with autism, which is usually the result, she says, of a lack of education.
"Things like swings, or rocking toys or equipment, things that spin, are very attractive when you are feeling dysregulated because of sensory input. Other people who are autistic might be looking for a quiet space. It really depends on the individual and on the moment."
As well, she offered a reminder that playgrounds may be used by people of different ages and abilities.
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