Special Investigation: How police are letting down people with learning difficulties

Campaigners have renewed calls for better training of police in how to deal with people with learning difficulties after exclusive research by Community Care has revealed that in some forces less than 1 per cent of officers have specialist knowledge, reports Sally Gillen.

A survey of the 43 forces across England and Wales, which generated 27 responses, shows a handful fall into that category.

Five forces with the lowest numbers of specially trained officers

Devon and Cornwall      0.3%            
Cumbria   0.9 %
 Essex   0.5 %
Lincolnshire  0.8 %
Nottinghamshire  0.3 %

Kathryn Stone, chief executive of charity Voice UK, says: “Although we are incredibly disappointed by these findings, we are not surprised. Voice UK regularly deals with people with learning disabilities whose treatment by the police falls well short of expected standards.”

“It is a whole contradiction that at there is a huge shift towards victim care and yet you get a very patchy response from the police. Some forces are fantastic but with others you wonder why they are involved in the work,” she adds.

Director of the Ann Craft Trust Deborah Kitson, which also supports people with learning difficulties who have been abused, says: “It is absolutely essential that all police should be trained so that they can effectively communicate with people with learning disabilities, particularly because we know they are more likely to victims of crimes.”

Richard Curen, director of Respond, said the issue should be addressed with the “utmost urgency”.

Survey responses

Police force  Number of Officers  Specialist training
Bedfordshire  1,200  Unknown
Cambridgeshire  1,400  27
City of London  850  40
Cumbria  1,270  12
Derbyshire  2,080  200
Devon and Cornwall  3,500 12
Dorset 1,400  20
Durham  1,744  200
Dyfed Powys  1,174  Unknown
Essex  3,500 18
Gloucestershire 1,296  None
Greater Manchester  8,000  150
Gwent   1,400  41
 Kent  4,000  200
Leicestershire 2,500  200
Lincolnshire  1,231  10
Norfolk 1566 113
Nothamptonshire 1,355  120
Northumbria   4000  400
Nottinghamshire 3,500   12
 South Yorkshire  3,500  300
Staffordshire 2,300  203
 Suffolk  1,400  41
Warwickshire  1,028   60
West Mercia  2,422  196
West Midlands  8,000  400
West Yorkshire  5,700   200

 Despite the introduction of a range of legislative measures designed to help people with learning difficulties get equal treatment within the criminal justice system, Community Care’s survey reveals a worrying lack of understanding by some forces

The Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999 makes provision for special measures that include intermediaries to help people with communication difficulties.

The Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999
A range of special measures were introduced within the act to make it easier for vulnerable/intimidated people to give evidence in court. Under the act measures include the provision of intermediaries and video-recorded evidence.

Around half of those who responded to the survey did not understand what an intermediary was, citing instead those who acted as appropriate adults or the provision of sign language services.

Former police officer John Smith, who ran a five-day advanced course for officers in the Metropolitan police before it was suspended, said there was “obvious confusion” among many forces over the need to provide for people with learning difficulties as suspects and witnesses.  

People with learning difficulties have long been treated as unreliable witnesses within the criminal justice system, which has meant they have been effectively denied the opportunity to see those who have committed a crime against them punished.

But Community Care’s findings reveal that lack of understanding about learning difficulties among the police can have terrible consequences for those who may have been suspected of committing an offence, as well as those who have been a victim of one.

In September the Independent Police Complaints Commission launched an investigation into a case handled by West Midlands Police involving the treatment of an 18-year-old with Asperger’s Syndrome. His mother complained to the Ipcc about how he was dealt with after he was arrested once on suspicion of causing criminal damage and then on possessing an offensive weapon. The investigation will look into issues including why the man was wearing a white paper suit when he was released without the charge after his first arrest.

It will also examine allegations that the police did not offer him access to an appropriate adult, which are a legal requirement for people considered vulnerable under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984.

It is not yet known when the investigation will end or what conclusions it may reach but it is a sign of the case’s seriousness that the Ipcc is conducting it at top-level and it is being headed by one its 15 commissioners John Crawley, whose brief includes dealing with complaints about the treatment of people with mental health problems and learning difficulties.

Crawley has had the role since the Ipcc was launched in April last year, replacing the Police Complaints Authority. Just 18 months after its inception, figures on the numbers of complaints involving people with learning difficulties are not available. It is also not possible to tell whether there are any trends in terms of their nature.

Crawley says: “I certainly do not have any doubt that there is scope for significant improvement in police training in this area. But there is not a great deal of value in wheeling officers in for half a day’s training –  what I call sheep-dipping –  where they get some clinical information about mental health issues.”

“Police officers are not amateur diagnosticians but they do need to be competent in recognising whether someone has a learning difficulty, if they have a mental illness, if they are on drugs so they can proceed with caution or get help,” he adds.

Useful websites

Independent Police Complaints Commission www.ipcc.org.uk

Respond www.respond.org.uk

Voice UK www.voiceuk.org.uk


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