I was horrified today to see a story on page A9 of the Toronto Globe and Mail with the headline, Police mistook autism for drunkeness.
Eighteen year old Dane Spurrell, of Mount Pearl, Newfoundland was arrested Saturday night around midnight, when police mistook his autism for public intoxication. Dane was walking home from a video game store where he had rented a movie when officers of the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary stopped him and told him he should be walking on the sidewalk. In the style of most autistic people, when there is only black and white and no gray, Dane told the officers that this was impossible, as there were no sidewalks in that particular area. The officers then asked him to smell his breath and when he refused, they arrested him.
This young man was forcibly handcuffed, put into the police cruiser and taken to jail. They didn't allow him to call his mother and she had no idea where he was. After five hours, she finally called 911 to report him missing. That is when she was told that her son had been arrested.
Police returned Dane to his home at approximately 8 am Sunday. His mother wonders why police wouldn't allow her son to call home when he was arrested. She's filed a formal complaint against the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary. The complaint will be investigated by an independent police complaints commission. The officers who arrested Dane will be privy to a criminal investigation into their conduct.
Since my grandson has autism, I wonder if someday he may be arrested for the same reason...because he is autistic...because he is different...because police don't know the difference between autism and public intoxication.
Justice Minister Tom Marshall can't comment until Dane's mother's complaint has been resolved. However he did say, As a parent, I can certainly empathize with Mrs. Spurnell here. When a son or daughter is picked up by police, especially someone who may have a disability, you want to make sure they're treated appropriately.
This concerns me a great deal. The local police once shot a young man who was a schizophrenic because he was acting weird and they thought he had a weapon. Another time, they picked up a man who had gone into diabetic shock, took him to the station and threw him in a cell. He died. In each of these cases an investigation took place. Police were found innocent of any wrong doing in both.
I believe it is the responsibility of the government to ensure that all police officers are trained to spot mental and physical problems that might resemble public intoxication. I can imagine how frightened Dane was when the police locked him up and wouldn't allow him to call his mother. Autism awareness needs to be promoted each and every month, and every day of the month, not just once a year in April. It is our duty to protect those on the autistic spectrum and make certain that their Human Rights are never again violated like they were in Dane's case.