NEWS

RNC officer in Dane Spurrell autism case criticized again

03/17/2015 03:42 EDT | Updated 05/17/2015 05:12 EDT
A Royal Newfoundland Constabulary officer reprimanded for her handling of a 2009 call involving a teenager with autism is again facing criticism — this time from a provincial court judge, for her response to a more recent case involving mental health issues.

Judge James Walsh said RNC Const. Lisa Harris has not learned from her past.

Walsh made the comments in a decision related to a May 2013 case in Torbay. Two RNC officers were dispatched to a call they believed was a "domestic" situation. It actually involved a mental health crisis.

According to the judge’s decision, when the two officers arrived, they assumed that a man had assaulted a woman. The man was face down on the floor, with two women sitting on top of him.

The officers took over efforts to restrain him.

The person who called 911 did not hang up the phone, and the subsequent events were captured on tape.

Harris threatened to pepper spray the man, and told him he should “f--k off” or he would be sprayed.

The man was later charged with resisting arrest, assaulting a peace officer, and more.

But Walsh would rule that the officers didn't assess the situation properly, and had "tunnel vision."

The judge noted they should have realized this was a mental health case, not a domestic.

"It is very clear from the recording played in evidence that [he] was hysterical and in mental health crisis at the time,” Walsh wrote in his decision.

Walsh was critical of both officers, but especially Const. Lisa Harris, calling her attitude “alarming.”

The reason? Because it's not the first time Harris has been reprimanded for a situation like this.

2009 arrest of autistic teen

In April 2009, Harris and a different partner arrested Dane Spurrell, 18, while he was walking down a street in Mount Pearl. They thought he was drunk.  

But Spurrell wasn't drunk — he is autistic.

Among other things, the adjudicator found, Harris said to him: "Don't you know what a f-----g sidewalk is?"

​The teen would spend the night in the lockup, and wasn't allowed to call his mother.

His mother, Diane Spurrell, only discovered what happened to her son when she called 911 at 5 a.m. to report him missing.

Days later, the chief of police and the officers involved apologized. The Spurrells also received a financial settlement.

But a subsequent police report documenting the incident concluded that the officers acted professionally and in good faith.

Diane Spurrell pursued the matter with the RNC Public Complaints Commission.

Adjudicator John McGrath ultimately ruled that Harris hadn't followed the RNC policy and procedures manual. The force suspended her without pay.

‘Defiance’ towards adjudicator’s finding

Judge Walsh referenced those conclusions about Harris’s 2009 actions in his decision on the 2013 Torbay case.

"Her defiance towards the adjudicator's findings and her lack of respect for the policy and procedures manual is shocking,” Walsh wrote.

At trial, when asked about cursing, Harris replied that she could use profanity if the circumstances warranted it.

That, Walsh noted, is contrary to the RNC policy manual, which states that "the use of profanity is never appropriate."

Walsh wrote: "It is quite clear that Const. Harris has not learned from her experience before the Public Complaints Commission."

The man at the centre of that Torbay 911 call tried to hang himself the next day.

His sister-in-law had to cut him down. Another 911 call was made.

Judge Walsh praised the officer who responded to that call, noting the officer told the man he was there "to help."

“In a period of 24 hours, RNC officers displayed how to properly deal with a person in mental crisis … and how not to deal with someone in mental crisis,” Walsh wrote.

The judge found the defendant not guilty of resisting arrest and assaulting a police officer in the Torbay case.

The Crown is appealing that decision.

Diane Spurrell concerned

Dane Spurrell’s mother Diane says she's shocked that Harris is once again under the microscope, believing she would have learned from the complaints commission’s findings.

“I don't think that anybody should ever be subjected to her again,” Spurrell said.

“Frankly, because she has a way of making things worse instead of better. She was called to a situation where somebody was in distress and she escalated it. The same way she escalated things the night that Dane was arrested."

Spurrell said RNC officers are, for the most part, very professional.

“They are good at what they do, but from time to time, someone will stand out. Stand out isn't the right word. Someone will make a mistake or show that they are not capable of doing a job that they think they have been trained for. And I think that's the problem here. I don't think it's the force. I think it's that individual,” she said.

No comment while appeal pending

Royal Newfoundland Constabulary Chief William Janes told CBC Investigates he can't comment on the Torbay matter while the Crown appeal is pending.

RNC spokesperson Const. Steve Curnew says that as far as he knows, Harris is still working.

Chief Janes said Harris's conduct in Torbay was being investigated by the complaints commission, but that probe was suspended pending the outcome of the trial.

Citing policy, the commission will not say if the investigation has resumed.

Harris's lawyer, Brad Wicks, said his client has no comment, given the fact that the matter remains before the courts.

MORE:cbcNews