Policing and Autism – Part 2

<<< This is a continuation of another post – Part 1.

Appropriate Adults

Of course, this links to broader issues about appropriate adults which I worry about.  I think those who are autistic and find themselves arrested are particularly at risk with this next point: appropriate adults are required by PACE for anyone who is mentally disordered or appears to be mentally disordered.  Individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome and high-functioning autism may not necessarily ‘appear’ mentally disordered (whatever that means) and even where a diagnosis is made known, through alert cards or other information, an appropriate adult should be sought.  It is not necessary to further question whether the person appears to ‘need’ an appropriate adult and this is a mistake often made by Doctors in police custody, both FMEs and those in MH assessment teams.  Appropriate adults are provided for those under 17 and those who are or appear mentally disordered: this is whether or not they appear to be in ‘need’ of such support.  I know plenty of street-wise 16yr olds who know the police custody procedures inside out and probably do not, strictly speaking, ‘need’ an appropriate adult but I cannot imagine a custody officer not ensuring one is called.  We need this kind of attitude in relation to all those in police custody who are mentally disordered, especially where autism and Asperger’s is involved.

Custody sergeants should remember when deciding about appropriate adults: we do not care what a doctor thinks about the utility or value of having or not having an appropriate adult.  We care about whether the person is “mentally disordered within the meaning of s1(1) of the Mental Health Act.”  If they are: appropriate adult.  Autism and Asperger’s are within this scope.

This links to something I’ll reserve for a later post: prosecution related decisions for autistic suspects.  I have never known someone who is known to have or is suspected of having autism be ‘sectioned’ under the Mental Health Act after arrest for an offence.  We know from other work I’ve blogged about before, that whether or not someone is ‘sectionable’ is often a determining factor in deciding whether or not to prosecute and I’ve argue before that this is both legally and morally wrong.  We need to be more sophisticated than that and autism is a point where it is even more important because of the potential of a prosecution decision’s impact upon the person and their life.  More on that in June.

ZH v Metropolitan Police Commissioner

This case from March 2012 involved an incident where officers were called to a swimming pool to deal with an autistic teenager who had “fixated” at the water’s edge.  Against the advice of his carers from his school, the swimming pool manager called the police because of apparent breaches of the rules governing who could be ‘poolside.  The police subsequently proceeded to take hold of the young man to move him from the water’s edge and he jumped in.  After he eventually came to the side of the pool, he was pulled from it and then taken to and detained in a police vehicle until arrangements were made for his care to be taken over.

Action was taken against the Metropolitan Police for assault against the young man ‘ZH’ (touching him at the poolside without lawful authority) and for false imprisonment (detaining him in handcuffs in the police van without lawful authority) and on both points, the case was won – a violation of his Article 5 rights and a breach of disability discrimination law.

Reading the case judgement, is actually a very useful way to understand the arguments put forward by ZH’s legal team as to why the whole situation should have been handled differently.  In itself, it is a helpful insight into how to approach this kind of situation where there was no immediate risk and efforts not to tolerate supposed ‘inappropriateness’ of ZH fixating on the water unnecessarily and unlawful escalated the whole incident.


Notwithstanding my support for specific awareness training and awareness raising of which these blog posts aim to be part, it is probably worth a reminder about the limitations of awareness training from a frontline police officer:

Sometimes, the action taken by the police at an incident, is necessary irrespective of whether anyone involved – victim, witness or suspect – is living with any form of mental, psychological or developmental disorder.  Whether or not officers can recognise a (broadly defined) mental disorder will vary from incident to incident and officer to officer.  We should bear in mind however, sometimes psychiatrists with ten years post-graduate training who have days in which to clerk and assess a patient can miss autism and Asperger’s.  We need to remember that policing, of necessity, is often emergency reaction to unknown factors and whether a police response is capable of being tailored will always be uncertain.

Last year I attended an event to speak where there was also an input on autism and Asperger’s from a police Chief Superintendent whose son is on the autistic spectrum.  Having covered a lot of information he wanted to leave the presentation on a ‘high’ and I am going to shamelessly steal his conclusion, hoping you recognise the power of this story.  Watch this video to learn about Jason McElwain.

The Mental Health Cop blog

Badgewon the ConnectedCOPS ‘Top Cop’ Award for leveraging social media in policing.
won the Digital Media Award from the UK’s leading mental health charity, Mind
– won a World of Mentalists #TWIMAward for the best in mental health blogs

ccawards2013 was highlighted by the Independent Commission on Policing & Mental Health
– was referenced in the UK Parliamentary debate on Policing & Mental Health
was commended by the Home Affairs Select Committee of the UK Parliament.


3 thoughts on “Policing and Autism – Part 2

  1. Not the “only” subcategory that should be dealt with thoughfully by law enforcement…schitzophrenia, bipolar disorder, lower than average IQ–police tragically mishandle cases involving people with a variety of ailments. Add to that the a judicial system all too willing to imprison people (especially minors) who need help as opposed to punishment and the tragedy never seems to ebb.

    1. Surely you must acknowledge that I did not say it was the only sub-category that should be dealt with ‘thoughfully’?! Of course, all cases – involving mental health or not – should be dealt with ‘thoughtfully’, including those involve all types of mental disorder.

      It would be naive not to acknowledge cases where the police could have managed incidents involving mental disorder much better; it is also true to say there are many cases where the police service are rather left alone to deal with serious, complex medical and social challenges and do so admirably.

      The problems with your final remark in many international jurisdications is that there are countless examples around the world of the kind of help you rightly identify simply not being available – either at all, or within a reasonable timeframe. Eventually there does come a point where the justice system exists to protect the public and owing to a gradual withdrawal of community based, crisis and other services that some commentators argue has been seen the world over in the last 50yrs, it is no surprise that some – very arguably far too many – vulnerable people have ended up in prison. What I’ve just said is backed up by much international research.

      If we are going to operate an essentially community based mental health care model, we need to have community based services, including crisis services to manage the nature and variety and demand. The criminalisation hypothesis is widely acknowledged now to be a myth. Compared to the general public, the mentally vulnerable are UNDER-criminalised for reasons that we would all agree are right and proper. But more needs to be done, undoubtedly.

  2. It is unreasonable of us to expect police officers to know what to do in these cases intuitively. A friend of mine with Aspergers has developed an awareness course she has delivered to the fine service with impressive results She would love to be able to do the same for local police but there seems to be no will or funding. When there is a legal obligation and someone who can give a unique perspective ie. that g someone with the condition throb a sad slate of affairs. Locally, we are very good with mental health through our forensic service, but people on the autistic spectrum are often treated shabbily.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s