Justice Minister Darin King says a derogatory comment made by a corrections officer at the St. John's lockup in 2009 about an autistic teenager was unacceptable.

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Darin King, N.L.'s justice minister, says derogatory language at the St. John's lockup is 'unacceptable'. (CBC)

"We all teach our children in school and when we're raising them to be respectful of people and we expect our employees in the justice system to be the same."

Caught on tape

King was referring to a comment made by a corrections officer about Dane Spurrell on April 19, 2009, and recorded on videotape. Spurrell, then 18, is the autistic teen arrested in Mount Pearl because police thought he was drunk in public.

The videotape, obtained by Spurrell's mother, Diane, shows officers calmly and politely questioning her son as to whether he had been drinking or using drugs. It also shows Spurrell repeatedly asking if he can call his mother, and the officers saying 'no' to his request. 

But after Spurrell is taken to a cell, one of the officers says, "You can tell by his eyes. It's almost like there's a touch of Mongoloid or something."

The justice minister was not impressed.

"You know, that kind of language we don't condone anywhere," King said. "Whether it's the lockup or out on the street, it's just not acceptable."

Autism awareness training important

"To identify someone because of a physical disability using words like that is just not appropriate," agreed Chris Dedde, the outreach co-ordinator with the Autism Society of Newfoundland and Labrador.

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Chris Dedde of N.L.'s Autism Society says it's important for corrections officials to understand people with disabilities. (CBC)

"Sensitivity training is appropriate no matter the career or what job you're in," Dedde said. "Being able to understand other people with disabilities and what they're about is crucial."

Since 2009, two-thirds of the guards at the lockup and Her Majesty's Penitentiary have received autism awareness training, although it's not known if the guards who dealt with Spurrell were part of that group.

Complaint filed with police commission

Within days of the incident, the RNC's chief of police and the arresting officers apologized to Dane and Diane Spurrell.

The Spurrells also received a financial settlement.

But a few months later, the Spurrells got an official police report on the incident which concluded the officers acted professionally and in good faith.

Diane Spurrell brought the report to the RNC's Public Complaints Commission, and the matter has yet to be resolved.

In the meantime, corrections officials have changed policies regarding phone calls at the lockup, allowing people to call a relative as well as a lawyer.

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this report quoted an officer as saying "It's almost like he's a f----n' Mongoloid or something." Closer anaylsis of the surveillance tape has revealed the officer said, "It's almost like there's a touch of Mongoloid or something."
    Nov 15, 2012 1:30 PM NT