Learning Disabilities and the Police

I want to highlight a few issues around Learning Disabilities – not least because it is Learning Disabilities Week 2012.  This is not only to provide information with links for the benefit of police officers who may need to know more – most of us do; but also briefly covering some issues for the benefit of service users and their families of policing issues such as disability hate crime.

I am especially interested in the subject of learning disabilities because I spent my summers and Easters at university working with school groups of teenagers with profound and multiple learning disabilities.  I also have a cousin with Down’s Syndrome.


I have to start this blog with the story of the learning disabilities training for frontline police officers I attended a couple of years ago.  A borough in my own force area had arranged a local LD organisation to provide training to all frontline police officers.  Two service users attended with a support worker and took police officers on a journey of awareness raising through the medium of humour.  After explaining a bit about themselves, these two lads took our officers on an inspiring and hilarious journey about LD in the context beer, sex and football!  The guys had stories about their favourite pubs, their girlfriends and their frustrations with West Bromwich Albion all linked to their lives living with autism and Down’s Syndrome, respectively.

In the room there were several officers who spent some of their Saturday afternoons going to the same pubs before the match and doing the same things.  You could see the lights going on that these were just two normal guys who happened to have learning disabilities, but who also knew a lot about football.  When the officers who supported rival teams started engaging in football banter you just knew this had worked and the officers actually stood up and applauded at the end – it was wonderful to see and I’d encourage police areas to link with local organisations who could do likewise!


Learning disabilities are life-long conditions which are caused for a variety of reasons, often genetic or developmental. LD is associated with the development of the brain before, during or shortly after birth.  It should be distinguished from a ‘learning difficulty’ such as dyslexia which does not necessarily affect intellectual skills; and from neurological conditions like dyspraxia.

The spectrum of various learning disabilities is wide and can include conditions which would be genuinely difficult for police officers (and some medical professionals!) to ‘spot’ – high functioning autism or Asperger’s syndrome, for example.  Other learning disabilities, sometimes referred to as the “profound and multiple” learning disabilities (PMLD), can mean that individuals have several serious health conditions and these often have a deep impact upon their lives.

Police officers need to know that everyone with a learning disability is an individual and that despite any label which can be applied, their condition will mean something specific and unique to them.  It does not, for example, immediately render them an unreliable victim or witness; it does not mean that they can not be relied upon to tell the truth: in fact, with some, the very opposite can be true!

Learning disabilities are legally classified as mental disorders, for the purposes of s1(1) of the Mental Health Act, but one significant difference about LD is that the MHA cannot be used to ‘section’ someone “unless that disability is associated with abnormally aggressive or seriously irresponsible conduct.”  Identification of someone with a learning disability automatically triggers entitlements to certain legal protections: vulnerable or intimidated provisions for victims and witnesses; or appropriate adults in police custody for suspects and those detained there under the Mental Health Act.


A practical difference police officers sometimes bump into can be timescales associated with processes that may be necessary after a police intervention.  For example, if someone had been detained and removed to a ‘place of safety’ (s136 MHA), the AMHP is under a legal duty to attempt to access a “section 12” doctor who has experience in learning disabilities.  In many areas, such doctors are not available 24/7 and therefore some assessments get delayed until a doctor is available the following morning.  I have often wondered hypothetically about what would occur if a learning disabilities patient was detained under s136 on Good Friday … the 72hrs under s136 would run out before the following Tuesday morning.

Identification of an inpatient ‘bed’ can also prove problematic if a police action has leads to a decision to admit someone to hospital under the MHA.  Learning disabilities beds are far fewer in number than acute mental health ‘beds’ and in high demand therefore an ability to access them is correspondingly limited.  I have known PoS services with average assessment and admission times of three or four hours take twelve or more hours to identify provision for an admission.  However, the number of s136 detentions made by police officers which are found to involve learning disabilities is small.

Obviously, there are many organisations and individuals very well placed to go into more detail about conditions, rights and impact and I would encourage you to look at the Mencap website.  In particular they have sections about learning disability, including a range of conditions, and about the Stand By Me campaign which aims to raise awareness about disability hate crime and improve police forces’ response to it.  Most – but not all! – forces have supported this campaign.


The term “co-morbid” or “co-morbidity” relates to people who live not only with a learning disability, but also with a mental health problem.  There is a higher proportion of people with LD living also with mental health problems than those without a learning disability – we should consider the potential for ineffective policing responses to crime and anti-social behaviour to contribute to this.

Again a practical point for officers at all levels: comorbidity can lead to interesting discussions about how services respond for example to cell blocks if it transpires that an arrested individual has co-morbid MH / LD – who leads on it, being chief amongst them.  This can be worse if there are different NHS providers in your area for mental health services and for learning disabilities.

Officers need to be aware of the link between LD and MH because they are NOT the same thing: the Mental Health Foundation have an interesting webpage on the subject.


It is not just in relation to learning disabilities, but disability more broadly, that the police service have found themselves in difficulty around protecting vulnerable victims.  Fiona PILKINGTON is undoubtedly the most high profile recent case to demonstrate this and the details of collective organisational failures, as well as lessons learned and improvements, are well documented elsewhere.

The Stand By Me campaign is Mencap’s awareness raising initiative on disability hate crime and I think it should be seen as reassuring that many parts of the justice system, including police and CPS, have disability hate crime champions to orchestrate.  It also needs to be acknowledged that this area of policing demands ongoing attention to ensure we get it right.  I know very well from my ‘day job’ in the police as an Investigation Team inspector, that the processes in place around hate crime of all kinds ensure extra scrutiny during initial reports and subsequent investigation – much of this as a result of lessons learned from the past.  However, we must not fall into the traps of either assuming witness evidence can not be relied upon OR assuming that so-called ‘low level’ harrassment and anti-social behaviour can not having a devastating impact upon people’s lives.

We should remember this >>> most people with a learning disability report that they have been abused, harassed or been a victim of crime as a result of their disability.

What is clear, is that the service as a whole and individual officers need to know more about Learning Disabilities and as ever, only spend time in rooms with professionals, service users and their families will do this properly.  Please support Learning Disabilities Week 2012 by sharing this blog post to raise awareness.

I’m grateful to Mencap for permission to include their badge on this blog.


5 thoughts on “Learning Disabilities and the Police

  1. Good post as usual we can normally access LD docs during office hours but huge struggle outside of them just one minor quibble while a large percentage of people with a learning disability are also on the autistic spectrum those with high functioning autism or Aspergers would not be classed as having one

  2. Funny you should write about this today. Mrs Durandal, who works for a court escort contractor, was just telling me about a pickup from a custody suite in the suburbs.

    A, who has Down’s syndrome, is well known to that custody suite and the local courts, and has the mental age of a young teenager despite being physically older by some years.

    A enjoys going to a certain transport hub and watching the vehicle movements therein. She wanders the shops, touching (emphatically not stealing or committing criminal damage, mere trespass) the merchandise. When challenged, she becomes abusive (shouty, by all accounts, rather than physical) and so the police become involved. Latterly, she is now in breach of an ASBO for that behaviour and has been remanded to prison. It is believed that she ‘makes a fuss’ because she either doesn’t understand that she’s not supposed to continue with her action or that she’s frightened by the confrontation.

    Clearly (based on hearsay, of course, it’s quite possible her PNC print could be an inch thick!), A needs residential care and not a bed in prison. It is unclear what, if any, engagement exists with the relevant social services and what attempts have been made to ensure she doesn’t breach her ASBO or bail cons, etc.

    On the face of it, this individual could come in contact with the police either by way of a response officer (called reactively to an incident) or an SNT (dealing with the issue on an ongoing basis).

    Given s136 isn’t available, are there any routes (either pre or post arrest for the substantive public order/byelaw offence) that would force involvement from the appropriate NHS / adult social services?

    (I’m in no way connected to the case, so all entirely hypothetical!)

  3. I suffer from mild Dyspraxia, which is a Specific Learning Disability. The main symptom for me is seriously crap handwriting and grammar. Simply trying to deal with the harassment I receive because some people thinking it is indicative of me being an idiot brings me into contact with the police. However the Police themselves can be quite abusive to quote Jon Murphy, “we think you mad”, while arresting me at Merseyside Police Authority AGM for trying to get an explanation of some comments by police. One Cop asked for special measures in court after claiming “there is no knowing what he is capable of” same officer wrote to my GP claiming I thought the police protected the Orange Lodge based on a joke I made about the police escort for marches out numbering the participants. Not only did I have to put up with hate crime from the public but also from officers of ACPO rank.

    1. Not a shining testimonty to the police, I accept. I’m sorry for any confusion or indeed offence caused, if there were any around the categorisation of dsypraxia … I can assure you though of my intention be accurate. My son goes to school with a another boy who has dyspraxia and his father once specifically said to me that it is not a learning disability after various specialist health and education supports. There are also various internet sites that say the same.

      All of that said, I understand the debate exists … I’ve also heard similiar debates about autism. I hope your situation comes to a satisfactory conclusion.

      1. It is often referred to as a Neurological disorder along with dyslexia and dysgraphia. It is referred to as specific because there are certain things I will not be able to learn to do or have great difficulty learning, in a very specific areas. It is the subtle things that often cause the problems with dyspraxia you are more likely to be a fussy eater as things like texture can be far more important. You try explaining to the custody sergeant that the pre-packed mashed potato tastes feels like eating sand, so if there is any cornflakes I’ll have them.

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