A police force has been criticised for failing to treat an attack on a disabled woman – who was spat at and left covered with flour by a group of teenagers as she sat on a park bench – as a disability hate crime.
Suffolk police is the latest force to face questions over its failure to treat offences as hate crimes when they appear to be motivated by disability-related hostility.
Only last month, West Midlands police and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) admitted they had not treated an “utterly barbaric” campaign of violence and abuse directed at a disabled mum and daughter as disability hate crime.
The incident in Suffolk, in July, caused widespread outrage after pictures of the aftermath of the assault in Bury St Edmunds – with members of the gang posing for the camera behind the disabled woman as she cowered on the bench – were posted on social media.
The woman, who has a mental health condition, had been sat on the bench when she was approached by the group of teenagers.
One of them spat on her before the group disappeared and returned 10 minutes later with a bag of flour, bought at a nearby shop, which they threw all over her.
Five of the teenagers pleaded guilty last week to charges of using threatening or abusive words or behaviour, but the offences were not treated in court as disability hate crimes, which would have seen them handed stricter sentences.
One of the five, who is now 18, will be sentenced in December, while four of them – two 15-year-olds, a 16-year-old and a 17-year-old – each received a 12-month referral order and was ordered to pay a £20 victim surcharge, court costs and £100 compensation to the victim.
A sixth teenager, aged 17, has denied the charge, and will face a trial in February.
Suffolk police this week admitted failing to flag the offence as a disability hate crime during its investigation.
A Suffolk police spokesman said: “The incident was treated as an assault without injury and the offenders were charged with using threatening or abusive words or behaviour.
“It was not treated as a disability hate crime as the incident didn’t reach the necessary charge threshold.”
But when asked why the force appeared to have breached national police guidelines by failing to treat the incident as a hate crime from the start of its investigation, the spokesman refused to comment further.
A CPS spokesman said: “Tackling hate crime, including disability hate crime, is a priority for the CPS.
“In this case we considered whether we could prove that the offenders either demonstrated or were motivated by hostility based on the victim’s disability but concluded that we could not.
“This was a distressing incident for the victim and the CPS has successfully prosecuted five people for the threatening and abusive behaviour they displayed.”
Stephen Brookes, a former coordinator of the Disability Hate Crime Network (DHCN), said the force “should have instantly flagged it as disability hate crime”.
He said the case was another example of a lack of consistency by police forces, which he said was “not good enough”.
Last month, the annual CPS hate crime report showed that the number of disability hate crime cases referred to prosecutors by police forces in England and Wales plunged in 2017-18 by nearly a quarter.
The number of disability hate crime convictions also slumped, from 800 in 2016-17 to 564 in 2017-18 (a drop of 29.5 per cent).
A report by two watchdogs last month also found that the work of officers on more than half of the disability hate crime investigations examined across six sample police forces – although Suffolk was not one of them – had been found to be “unacceptable”.
David Wilkin, a DHCN coordinator, said: “It is vital, for the recognition and prosecution of disability hate crime, that all members of police staff receiving hate crime reports process them appropriately.
“The CPS, in its latest report, are concerned that there has been a fall recently in the number of referrals made by the police for hate crimes generally.
“Whether a victim or witness reports such an offence, or if the police officer suspects such an offence has been committed, then the offence needs to be flagged for the CPS to take the appropriate action.
“It is concerning if, as the CPS suggest, this is not being actioned as disability hate crime victims may not receive the weight of justice which they deserve.”
A note from the editor:
Please consider making a voluntary financial contribution to support the work of DNS and allow it to continue producing independent, carefully-researched news stories that focus on the lives and rights of disabled people and their user-led organisations.
Please do not contribute if you cannot afford to do so, and please note that DNS is not a charity. It is run and owned by disabled journalist John Pring and has been from its launch in April 2009.
Thank you for anything you can do to support the work of DNS…