Why Are The Police Failing Victims Of Disability Hate Crime?
It was clear something was very seriously wrong when Daniel Smith arrived at his father Owen’s house in the early hours of the morning on 18 October last year visibly bruised and shaken. Owen Smith had spent the previous few hours anxiously looking for his 25-year-old son, who has autism, after he failed to turn up to meet him as planned.
“I looked at his face and I thought ‘oh my God, what’s happened?,’” Smith recalls. At first he thought his son might have knocked himself out and been at a hospital. But it was much worse than he feared. Smith believes Daniel had been the victim of a brutal disability hate crime where he was repeatedly beaten and punched while trying to defend himself against two attackers, but it was his son who was then charged with assault and detained in a police station, alone and vulnerable for nine hours.
To combat disability hate crime, we must understand why people commit it
In April, six “distressing” months after first being arrested, Daniel was finally acquitted of both assault charges at a court in Corby. It was accepted that he had acted in self-defence.
However, Smith says that while the family is relieved the court ordeal has ended, the justice system needs to be held to account for failing Daniel. The “staggering incompetence” and mistreatment of his son by officers from Northamptonshire police and a failure by the courts to support Daniel during proceedings left the family with no choice but to complain to both the police and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), Smith says.
According to Smith, the incident that triggered Daniel’s arrest took place when he was visiting his father in Rushden, Northants, for the weekend. On the Saturday afternoon, while sitting in a local park Daniel, who according to his father is naturally friendly and talkative, allegedly approached two teenage girls and asked a couple of innocuous questions. One girl phoned her father claiming – wrongly, says Smith – that Daniel had been taking photos of the girls. The girl’s father told the police that he arrived “to sort him out for being weird,” says Smith.
Reeling and frightened from injuries after being punched to the ground, Daniel says in his written complaint: “I ran to the police station because I felt safe to do so. It was a major shock when I was handcuffed tightly so I could not move. I felt very scared and upset. I told the police I had autism. I wanted to speak to my Dad but I was not allowed to and my phone was taken. [No photos were found on his phone]. I felt no one was listening. When I was locked up, I held my head and cried. I felt like dying.”
The family’s complaint against Northants police is now being investigated by the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC). It outlines an alleged litany of egregious errors on the part of officers. These include a failure to recognise and act upon the fact that Daniel was mentally vulnerable, even after he explained twice that he had autism, or to investigate that he was the victim of a hate crime, not a perpetrator. It also alleges that despite his evident physical injuries officers did not arrange for Daniel to be examined by a medic.
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At no point during his estimated nine hours in custody were reasonable adjustments made for Daniel’s mental vulnerabilities. This would include seeking an “appropriate adult” (AA) who could advocate for him and help him navigate the system, says Owen. This is despite guidelines stipulating that once someone is being treated as a suspect a number of steps must be followed.
The codes of practice require that police locate an AA as soon as practicable, (this could be a guardian, relative or others including volunteer AAs from established networks around the country). Appropriate adults are widely recognised as having a key role to play in safeguarding the rights and welfare of children (for whom AAs are mandatory) and vulnerable adults in custody. They have specific responsibilities, such as ensuring people understand their rights and observing police behaviour.
The Smith family’s IPCC complaint documents that they were not contacted by police, even after Daniel requested to speak to his father, that police ignored his pleas for help after running away from the “bullies”, and disregarded the fact that there were no photographs of the girls, as alleged, on Daniel’s phone. Had an AA or someone else been called, Smith believes the situation would have been handled very differently. “They should have first phoned me, appointed a suitable adult straight away, waited until they’d collated all the information and evidence of what had happened – and listened to Daniel. This was a hate crime. Daniel was the victim. The whole system is merciless,” he says.
Daniel’s treatment has echoes of other recent cases involving disabled people such as that of Bijan Ebrahimi who asked for protection from a man who accused him of being a paedophile but was instead arrested by Avon and Somerset police. The man would later go on to murder Ebrahimi outside his home in Bristol in 2013. Officers have since been sacked and two jailed. The full findings of a probe by the IPCC into Ebrahimi’s case are expected imminently.
There are similarities, too, with the case of an 11-year-old girl with a neurological disability who was detained under the Mental Health Act, handcuffed and restrained with a mesh hood by Sussex police. An IPCC report published earlier this month found that the child was held overnight twice in police cells, without any appropriate adult being present.
According to access to justice campaigners and disability rights advocates, Daniel’s alleged experience exposes glaring fault lines throughout the criminal justice system. Stephen Brookes, co-ordinator of the Disability Hate Crime Network, suggests Northants police “got it so wrong, it’s incredible” in Daniel’s case. The number of disability hate crimes recorded by police has skyrocketed (up by 25% between 2013-14 and 2014-15 in England and Wales). This is in part because more people are reporting them, but Brookes argues that police need to be much better trained at spotting disability hate crimes and engaging with people who have mental impairments.
“We’ve got some forces who lack understanding of the nuances [of disability hate crimes]. Too often people are accused of being a perpetrator,” says Brookes. DHCN and others work closely with forces, police chiefs and policymakers to improve procedures, and what is striking, he says, is that “where forces are getting it right, they’re really good”.
Chris Bath, chief executive of the National Appropriate Adult Network (Naan) says the issue of criminal justice and mentally vulnerable people needs to be seen “in a human rights context”. He points to Naan’s recent research estimating that around a quarter of a million mentally ill, learning disabled and autistic people are detained annually by police without an AA present, leaving them wide open to injustices.
The report, commissioned by the home secretary, Theresa May, after Naan raised the issue with the Home Office, found that in some places there are no AA schemes, meaning that even when police try to access help it’s often not available. Where there are AA schemes, the research found, police are better at identifying hate crimes. Another problem, Bath suggests, is that many are under pressure due to local authority budget cuts.
An IPCC report in March revealed that people with mental health problems were more likely to be restrained and four times more likely to die after being subjected to police force. Next month the College of Policing will roll out a new training programme for officers on engaging with mentally vulnerable people.
Northants police says that it made a mandatory referral to the IPCC after assessing the incident with Daniel. A spokeswoman for the IPCC says it will take a “number of months” to fully investigate Daniel’s case.
Asked what is he hoping for, Owen replies: “Justice for Daniel.” As for Daniel, he has told the IPCC: “I can’t trust the police any more. I am frightened of the police.”