ST. JOHN’S, N.L. – The chief of a Newfoundland police force apologized Thursday to a teenager and his mother after the youth was arrested and detained for eight hours because officers mistook symptoms of his autism for signs of intoxication.
Chief Joe Browne of the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary met with Diane Spurrell and her son Dane at their home and apologized for actions he called “incorrect.”
“We deeply regret that Dane was exposed to this and I regret as well that his mom had to endure the discomfort caused by not knowing where her son was for quite some period of time,” Browne told a news conference hours after he spoke with the Spurrell family.
“I wish I could turn back time, but we can’t, so the best thing we can do now is to apologize sincerely and figure out where we go from here to make things better.”
Just after midnight Sunday, a police officer noticed a car swerve around Dane while he was walking along a street in Mount Pearl, a suburb west of St. John’s. The 18-year-old was on his way home after going to a nearby video game store.
The officer asked Dane if he was OK and told him he should not be walking on the road, but the teenager said that was impossible because there was no sidewalk in the area.
During her conversation with him, the officer suspected he may have been under the influence of alcohol or drugs. She and another officer handcuffed him after “a very minor altercation,” believing it would be in the best interests of his safety, Browne said.
He was taken to a jail in downtown St. John’s. His mother was not aware of his whereabouts until she called 911 to report him missing five hours after his arrest.
The police did not allow Dane an opportunity to call his mother. He was returned home after they realized the mistake eight hours after he was stopped.
By law, the police are only required to allow a phone call to a lawyer, though they can exercise some flexibility in such situations, Browne said.
“It would’ve been absolutely no issue to provide access to a telephone or at least place a call on Dane’s behalf (to his mother),” Browne said.
“I sincerely wish that had occurred. In fact, if it had … I think it would’ve been resolved immediately.”
Diane Spurrell welcomed Browne’s apology and said she was confident he would handle the matter appropriately.
“They were deeply sorry for what happened and I believe that they’re sincere,” she said.
The Royal Newfoundland Constabulary will begin training next month to increase awareness for its officers of autism, Browne said.
“If any good can come of this, we can look towards Dane as really influencing police training in this province,” he said.
“It’s a mild comfort, but at least he’ll have an impact beyond this event.”
Dane will likely harbour a lifelong mistrust of the police because of the wrongful arrest, his mother said.
“I don’t think he’s ever going to trust law enforcement ever again,” she said. “But that being said, the benefit to all this is that I hope at least that law enforcement agencies will be better informed.”
The police have launched an internal and criminal investigation into the conduct of the officers.
Browne also expressed disappointment with one of the officers involved in the arrest who defended his actions in an online response to a news story about the incident.
“I challenge all you armchair quarterbacks to spend a week in my job,” the officer wrote.
“I have 15 years on patrol, and can spot a person who needs help. This person was a danger to himself and needed intervention.”
Browne confirmed the comments were those of one of the officers under investigation.
“He had spent, in my view, too much time reading the blog postings, and some of them were just vile and offensive, others were instructive and added to the debate,” Browne said.
“He felt obliged or compelled, I guess is the word, to respond and he told me that the minute he hit send, he wanted to try to figure out how to pull it back. But it was just a raw, emotional thing.”
Police were seeking to speak with two women who they believe may have witnessed the arrest while they were parked in a small green car nearby.