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Police Failing Victims Of Disability Hate Crime, Says Study

June 20, 2011

People with learning disabilities continue to be failed by police forces, with many neither properly investigating disability hate crimes or treating victims as credible witnesses, according to a report by Mencap.

The charity has launched a three-year campaign to ensure offences are treated as seriously as those motivated by racism or homophobia.

The report found that even after high-profile cases such as that of Fiona Pilkington, police too often underplay long-running campaigns of harassment or abuse against people with learning disabilities.

The issue attracted national attention in 2009 when an inquest found that police had failed Pilkington, who killed herself and her severely disabled teenage daughter in a burning car after the family endured years of near-constant torment from local youths.

The Mencap report, Don’t Stand By, uncovered some examples of good police practice. But it also found a more general pattern of patchy and inconsistent responses to crimes affecting people with learning disabilities within many of the 14 English police forces it investigated.

A number had little apparent understanding of the particular needs of victims and the assistance they might require in reporting offences.

Mencap also canvassed the experiences of people with learning disabilities who had been in contact with the police. They discovered many encountered attitudes ranging from patronising – officers ignoring them and speaking only to their support worker – to the downright dismissive. One person told the study: “I reported a crime to police who said, ‘Not you again.’ ”

Such attitudes mean many victims simply never report crimes to police, with officers in turn often overlooking the wider issue, Mencap said.

“Disability hate crime is often the poor relative of racist hate crime,” one officer told the study.

Up to 90% of people with a learning disability are estimated to have endured verbal harassment or violence because of their vulnerability, Mencap’s chief executive Mark Goldring said.

“Too often they accept abuse as a part of their daily life. Early intervention is vital if people with disabilities are not to live in fear. When hate crime takes hold it stops people living their lives in the way they want to.”

Despite efforts by police forces to learn from previous mistakes, many people with learning disabilities were not “getting the level of service they are entitled to” from police, Goldring said in the introduction to the report.

“We continue to hear reports of incidents being dismissed as ‘only antisocial behaviour’, with little or no real action being taken.”

While the Pilkington case saw the harassment of a severely disabled person living with a carer, many other incidents involve people with less serious learning disabilities. They are able to lead independent lives but nonetheless remain vulnerable.

In one such case a 36-year-old man, Keith Philpott, was beaten and stabbed to death in his Teesside flat by local men who wrongly believed he was sexually involved with a teenage girl.

Mencap is asking police forces to sign up to a 10-point list of promises, including more support for crime victims with learning difficulties, an end to discriminatory language and attitudes among officers and efforts not to write offences off as “just” antisocial behaviour.

Stephen Otter, the chief constable of Devon and Cornwall police, who speaks on equality issues for the Association of Chief Police Officers, said the fact that police took part in the Mencap study showed a level of commitment.

“What isn’t true is that we don’t treat it seriously,” he said.

“What is true is that we find it difficult to get disabled people, in particular those with learning disabilities, to feel confident enough to report things to us.”

This was being tackled through measures such as online reporting of harassment and other crimes, as well as further training.

“I think it’s already the case that if people who are disabled contact the police they get a better service than they did five or 10 years ago,” he added.

“However, there’s always a lag in that confidence in the mind of the disabled person. They hear stories based on the history, and what we’re finding very hard is to break through that. We need people’s perceptions to change.”

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