Darkness. Hundreds of teens ranging from mildly to wildly intoxicated and roaming freely between a field and a road. A narrow, rural road choked on either side with parked vehicles. A flood of dispatch calls ranging from noise complaints to a report of a stabbing.
Those were some of the obstacles Cape Breton Regional Police officers confronted in the early morning hours of June 10, 2018, in Leitches Creek where a high school graduation party had gone out of control.
Police also had a death to investigate as 17-year-old Nathan Joneil Hanna, 17, of Sydney Mines was struck and killed by a vehicle driven by Hayden Laffin, 23.
Regional police have now been called to account for their actions on that night in a Nova Scotia Police Review Board hearing that began Monday in Sydney.
A three-member panel of the board is hearing an appeal of a complaint filed against the regional police service alleging officers were negligent in their duty on that night in failing to administer a breathalyzer to Laffin and take other measures to properly investigate the death.
The complaint was filed by John Parr, Hanna’s father, and was first dealt with at the local level through an external investigation by members of the Halifax Regional Police. A final report concluded no disciplinary fault with how police conducted themselves.
The hearing is scheduled for two weeks and as many as 20 witnesses could testify.
Laffin was charged with obstruction of justice for lying to police about what initially happened. He told investigators Hanna suddenly appeared in the middle of the road and then collapsed.
He was committed to stand trial on the charge but in July, the charge was dismissed by the Public Prosecution Service.
Six regional officers have now completed their testimony before the panel and each described a scene of hundreds of people milling about and in various stages of intoxication.
Two officers have testified they had no reason to ask Laffin to take a sobriety test because he exhibited no signs of impairment.
It was about 1 a.m. when Const. John Ratchford attended the scene.
When questioned by Parr’s lawyer, Laura McCarthy, Ratchford said when he first arrived he was struck by the number of vehicles parked on either side of the road and the throng of people in the field and moving among the parked cars.
Crowd estimates have ranged from several hundred, mostly teenagers, to 1,000.
“There were bottles thrown down towards police,” he said, adding one of two smashed along the shoulder of the road.
He said he didn’t go searching for those responsible as his primary concern was with safety on the road.
Ratchford said he issued two summary offence tickets to two 19-year-old males for public drunkenness. He said he drove one individual back to his home in Sydney Mines and released another into the custody of his mother who arrived at the party to pick him up.
Ratchford would later come into contact with Nathan Arsenault who reported being with Hanna when he was struck.
Ratchford testified that Arsenault said both he and Hanna left the party together and walked down the highway.
Arsenault said, according to Ratchford, that he and Hanna were sitting along the side of the road when Hanna was struck. The force pushed Hanna’s body into the ditch.
Ratchford said Arsenault told him that those in the vehicle lifted Hanna back up onto the road and started CPR in a bid to revive him.
When questioned by lawyer Demetri Kachafanas, representing the Cape Breton Regional Municipality, Ratchford said among his primary concerns that night was safety for both officers and those attending the party.
He said intoxicated youth have a tendency to flee from police, so a large presence of officers swooping in to clear the area out could have divided the large crowd sending people into nearby woods and out onto the road.
He said his decision to take an individual home after being ticketed was the fastest and quickest way he knew to get back to the scene and help the other officers.
His comment was echoed by Const. Nicole Muise who told the hearing that no one issued an order not to issue tickets but that officers deemed it prudent to maintain a presence and assist with those attempting to leave to ensure public safety.
She also added that heading into such a large group and making arrests could have resulted in the crowd turning on police or causing damage to the homeowners' property.
The hearing continues Wednesday.