One of the Metropolitan police’s own disabled advisers has warned that cases of discrimination and human rights abuse by the force’s own officers could become more common because of government funding cuts.
Anne Novis a member of the force’s Disability Independent Advisory Group (DIAG), spoke out after the court of appeal ruled that the Met had violated the rights of a teenager with autism.
The boy was assaulted by seven officers and forced into handcuffs and leg restraints during a school trip to a swimming-pool in September 2008.
Josh*, who has autism and was 16 years old at the time, had been visiting the pool in west London with four classmates and teaching staff, so they could familiarise themselves with the facilities.
But one of the pool staff called police when Josh became fixated with the water and could not be persuaded to leave the side of the pool.
When the first officers arrived, they failed to consult the staff from his school and tried to grab him, and he jumped into the pool.
Josh continued to show no signs of aggression, but after he was pulled out of the pool by lifeguards, five officers held him on the ground, while another two put him into handcuffs and leg restraints.
He was placed in a cage in the back of a police van, still in handcuffs, leg restraints and soaking wet, and in a “very agitated and distressed” state, a previous court hearing had been told.
As a result of the incident, the frequency of his epileptic seizures increased, and he has experienced post-traumatic stress.
Adrian Whyatt, co-chair of the disabled people’s organisation Autistic UK, said: “This is a classic case of ignoring a person’s access needs by refusing to consider them. Unless there are severe disciplinary consequences for service providers such as the police (and the swimming pool) this will continue.”
A county court found last year that the police officers had assaulted Josh, falsely imprisoned him, and breached the Disability Discrimination Act and the European Convention on Human Rights, and awarded him £28,250 in compensation.
The court of appeal today (14 February) dismissed the Met’s appeal against that judgement, stating that nothing could have justified how Josh was restrained.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) had intervened in the case, to argue that Josh had been subject to inhuman and degrading treatment, and that his right to liberty had been breached.
Wendy Hewitt, the EHRC’s deputy director, legal, said: “The police deal with many vulnerable people and must make arrangements to ensure that they make well-informed decisions on how and when to restrain them, to avoid breaching their human rights obligations.”
A Met spokesman said the appeal had been to seek “greater clarification” on the police’s statutory duties in such situations involving people with learning difficulties or mental health conditions, and because the original judgement “would make it very difficult for our officers to respond in such situations”.
He said: “We are called when others feel they cannot manage without our assistance. Our officers are required to make decisions affecting people with such impairments in difficult, on occasions fast moving and potentially life-threatening or harm-causing situations.”
He said an independent commission was currently examining the force’s response to cases involving people with mental health conditions.
The force said it had asked the commission to consider Josh’s case “because of the vulnerability issues and the use of restraint, which are areas the commission have looked at in other vulnerable people cases”.
The spokesman added: “Today’s judgement alongside the commission’s report will help us to examine our policies and develop our training and processes.”
But Novis said the force had failed to ask DIAG members for advice in the wake of the incident in 2008.
She believes spending cuts have now led to disability issues becoming a lower priority within the Met, which she fears could lead to more cases like Josh’s.
She said: “With the current climate, the police are having to prioritise what they do. They are going to lose a lot of back-office workers and that includes those who would address diversity issues.”
She said the police needed to be “constantly reminded” of their legal duties and “challenged” by disabled people over their attitudes to disability.
*Not his real name
14 February 2013