Thursday, April 23

Autistic Man Arrested by Newfoundland Police

As you may well know, April is Autism Month. It is a time to promote awareness of autism and all of the disorders on the autism spectrum.

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.


  1. I agree with you - they need training for sure.

  2. Very sad and frustrating. Didn't they make him take a sobriety test?

  3. I can relate to both the young man and the police.Police are trined to act on instinct.a lot of time autism and other mental issues are ignored in their training.this does not excuse the cops for what they did it does point out the need for more traing.

  4. Education is the key to these problems and some good old COMMON SENSE! They could also use some compassion and care for others.... There are people that should NEVER be in law enforcement....... A good cop is not always that one that writes the most tickets or has the most arrested..... I hope that they at least get reprimanded..

  5. Thank- you for this post. This really upsets me!!!...m.

  6. that is so frightening...I can see why you are so worried Mary. Things must change. Thanks for doing your part to educate us all ..;D

  7. What a terrible thing to happen to Dane.

    Law enforcement officers need more training.

  8. I can see your point of view most definitely!!! But, I need to ask, just what kind of training it would be to differentiate? Seriously. I would be very interested in this as my grandson has D.S. And he would not understand the ways of law enforcement either. What can be done, you wonder? With crime at the highest ever, I can understand too, that the police would certainly be never know. But still on the other hand, why did they not give the kid a call to his parent or legal guardian first? It's appalling, but again, I can see the other side of the story too.

  9. Yes, the phone call issue is one thing they could have easily done. I read a very sad story in People magazine this week about a very large 17-year-old autistic boy (200 pounds) who beat his mom to death. They were very close and she'd raised him alone his whole life. He was volatile and she hid in her closet often, it said, with him kicking the door. They don't know what they're going to do with him, because he really is at the highest level of the disorder, apparently not really aware of what he did. So so sad.

  10. I can't believe they didn't allow him to call home. Very worrisome-I hope her complaint results in some changes.

  11. I for one would not wish to be a police person because often bad judgement makes news and good judgement goes unnoticed. I feel sad for the young man and a phone call could have immediately taken care of the matter,Peace

  12. Your absolutely right...this is a huge issue...huge.

    Good informative post.

    Love, Jess

  13. I hadn't heard of this story, but all I can say is that if I was his mother, I would be quite upset!!! I know the police are just doing their job but as you say, there is definitely a need for them to be trained in recognizing a person with autism or any such disorder. My main concern, though, is why he wasn't allowed his one phone call...the police definitely screwed up there! xoxo

  14. Mary,

    The same thing happens in US all the time. Surely police officers do need more training in the area of mental/physical disabilities, at the very least learn the basic characteristics of mental disabilities - and understand that those people may not cooperate because they don't understand.

    Unfortunately, here in the US, those with mental disabilities are often thrown in jail in lieu of 'understanding and home' or a hospital.

    Most officers in my area do a good job dealing with the ones with disabilities.

    But to be honest, I think the few officers who do violate these people's rights *know* and are aware - but they had rather ignore the problem and act like a bully - because they can.

    Police officers aren't the only ones though - mental health workers, social workers, mess up too. It got real bad here in Georgia for a while - neglect, abuse, deaths - the Georgia Mental Health System has been under federal investigation for years.

    The Atlanta Journal Constitution ran a big series about it a few years ago.

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