Police bullying & the UK justice system’s bias against the disabled

Although abuse of disabled by police is a fairly frequent occurrence in America and other countries where many deaths in police custody or even during pursuit have occurred. Such occurrences in the UK are much rarer but they still do occur.

It must be remembered that a large number of cases are linked to people with mental health. These constitute a considerable percentage of the total number of deaths in UK police custody.

We do find that the police can exhibit hatred or disgust towards disabled victims, in much the same way as that which is directed towards blacks and rape victims. In fact London’s Met Police has incarcerated a considerable number of Blacks, both with disability and mental health. There are quite a number of similar incidences in other UK forces and few of these have ever come to the public’s attention.

Some of the early, and indeed quite rare works to recognise abuse by police against the disabled was Chris Williams’ book ‘Invisible victims: crime and abuse against people with learning disabilities’ (1995). This led to the establishment of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999, making the justice system more responsive to the needs of disabled victims.

Despite this important legislation police are still adept at making disabled people scared of them. “I would never tell the police if I was raped, because once I went to the station to help them identify someone and they got angry with me.” Social Care Research No 70 (1995)

‘The right to political participation of persons with mental health problems and persons with intellectual disabilities’ – research by the EU – does record instances of UK police insinuating the disabled.

Just a few months ago a disabled person said “The police blamed me for not coping with anti social behaviour from kids and said it was a health issue.” 

The most publicly documented case recently of police abuse is that of Bijan Ebrahimi.

Avon Somerset police’s actions must be brought into question. Despite being down the road from Biajn’s flat, they ignored his calls for help. On one occasion it is alleged officers did not respond simply because they did not want their pot noodle getting cold.

The worst element of abuse in the Ebrahimi case is that of Bijan being arrested on suspicion of being a paedophile. This is the element that many consider as bullying. This arrest sent a confirmation from police to his bullies that he was ‘known’ to be a paedophile. Ultimately Bijan didnt want to return home because he knew his life was in danger but police insisted he should. As events showed he was caught by his neighbours, two self-styled vigilantes. They tortured him, before killing him and burning his body.

It is the uncaring attitude displayed by the Bristol police that is perhaps one of the most shocking elements in the Bijan case, and their abject failures clearly constituted a form of harassment, including false arrest and wrongful imprisonment as well as many other misdeeds.

Next are examples of other cases of police bullying against the disabled.

Classic cases:

Derek Bentley is one where misinterpretation of his disability caused the justice system to be determined to finding him guilty and be hanged for murder. His diminished responsibility convinced the police and courts he was responsible for a murder. In fact it was his accomplice who had killed while Bentley looked on. This was made the subject of a film called ‘Let him have it.’

That of Stefan Kiszko is disturbing. Its a kind of ‘Let him have it’ in reverse. Kiszko, a 23-year Oldham clerk with learning difficulties, served 16 years in prison after being was wrongly convicted of a murder. One MP described the case as undoubtedly “the worst miscarriage of justice of all time.”

Police caught and ultimately forced a confession from Kiszko. It was done under great pressure of torture. Officers said to him “admit it and you will be on your way home in under 24 hours.” Kiszko buckled under this immense pressure and made a fake confession. It would in fact be one and a half decades before he saw his home again.

The trial was focused upon Kiszko’s absolute conviction, it did not consider any of the inconsistencies. Kiszko was finally released in 1992 but died just a year later. Ronald Castree, the real murderer, was caught in 2006. No apology for Kiszko sadly – we are told a fitting memorial might be an acknowledgement that a frightened, vengeful society can still lock up the wrong man.”

The list of abuses goes on. Anthony Steel who had a disability, was physically attacked by police and eventually goaded into giving confession for a murder he had never committed. A very scared man who spent 25 wrongful years in prison.

Another example was Judith Ward, convicted of being an IRA bomber. The evidence against her was manipulated and dubious, yet it was ultimately and undeniably believed by the judges. This was despite her having mental  illness and most clearly being unfit for trial. Ward spent 18 years in prison and her case was described as one where justice had been “secured by ambush.”

In all the above cases justice was never once ‘served.’ Without a doubt the UK’s judicial system fraudulently imposed a false justice upon these victims with disabilities when it sought to incarcerate them.

Recent examples of police abuse:

*The most classic example of a judicial cop-out is that Colin Farmer, who was tasered by cops thinking his white cane was a samurai sword. The CPS claims there was “insufficient evidence” in order to take action against the officers responsible.

*Incompetent Scottish police arrested a Downs boy with a mental age of five for a racially motivated attack. He welcomed the officers with a big smile and a friendly handshake. “As the officers read him his rights and charged him with assault and racial abuse, he agreed with everything they said, then thanked them for coming to see him.” The bungling police officers were clearly happy at having laid charges against this unfortunate boy. Thankfully the Scottish Crown Office saw through the charade, issued a rare apology and had the case withdrawn.

*A case of police harassment against a South Wales disabled woman, well documented on social media and reported in the news.

*Major harassment by police in Aylesham Kent, well documented on social media including an interview with Artist Taxi Driver.

*Violent acts, including asphyxiation, against a disabled person by police in Liverpool area. Not ever in news.

*Mentally ill man beaten unconscious in police van, again Liverpool. Collarbone, nose, fingers & several  ribs broken. Plus bruising all over body and face. Not ever in news.

*Disabled woman who had one arm, and was neither violent nor aggressive. Beaten up by police and her rib cage smashed. Not ever in news.

*Autistic woman arrested when her communication difficulties caused officers to think she was drunk. Held in cells for over 10 hours and paraded in court. No apology from Merseyside police. Was in news. (see the Merseyside report.)

*Eleven year old autistic girl given excessive restraint by police on five separate occasions in Crawley, Sussex. Was in news.

*Disabled man in Leicester left abandoned with his wheelchair on the streets with no trousers or spare clothes after a forced eviction. Was reported in news.

*Several cases of police harassment against the disabled in the Met Police area including police bullying/harassment of disabled people in the boroughs of Barnet, Lambeth, Lewisham & ironically, Merton. Not on news but documented via social media.

Abuses from pre social media days:

*Disabled student assaulted by police in Park Royal, London. Met Police conducted false imprisonment, assault and battery. The Met faced a bill of £150,000 and were forced to pay out compensation. (see the Armit Sharma case)

*Disabled person visits son in police station. Is grabbed by officer who then flung the man through a doorway, before kicking him as he lay in pain on floor. Merseyside Police found guilty. Damages of £108,000 awarded. (see the Merseyside report.)

*66 year old disabled woman subjected to terror assault and strip searched in her Manchester home. Wrong location in search for cocaine. Neither apology nor compensation offered by Greater Manchester police.

*Elderly deaf man in Winchester fundraising for charity. Instead he was arrested for kerb crawling. Police tried to enact cover ups with regards to their mistakes but failed. Hampshire police ultimately charged with false arrest, wrongful imprisonment and assault.

Analysis of the situation:

In discussing abuses by police against the disabled it must be admitted ‘no-one knows’ the actual extent of bullying that goes on. ‘No one knows’ was the project title of a comprehensive 2007 research conducted by the Prison Reform Trust. 

Their research investigated how people with learning disabilities could be easily convicted of crimes: “Perhaps the courts think such people are insolent when they don’t reply. In fact, when we had one of these women assessed we discovered that she had a mental age of between seven and eight.”

People with learning disabilities (and indeed other disabilities) do find the police and courts stacked up against them: “On being questioned, for example at the police station and in court, they may be acquiescent and suggestible and, under pressure, may try to appease other people.”

In late 2013 the Prison Reform Trust released a further report on the failures of the UK’s judicial system, and found it was still failing those with learning disabilities completely. 

Harassment by police against disabled people is rarely documented. For every case of harassment brought against the police, complaints are not upheld. Any success is something like 1 in every 300 complaints by disabled people.

Between 2009 and 2011 there were 65 allegations of abuse against the disabled in London alone – and not a single one was upheld and the Met police absolved each time. In fact it is understood there has only ever been one successful complaint by a disabled person involving the Met.

In a recent, undocumented, case of abuse a complaint was not upheld because the judge would not accept existence of the person’s disability. Its an easy way of giving officers a cop out and ensuring unacceptable acts against a disabled person do go unrecorded.

The IPCC does admit that police are not up to standard with regards to disabled people. The case of harassment against an Asperger boy from Stourbridge boy in 2005, where police had given him a “right bollocking” caused John Crawley of the IPCC to say “I will be looking at this case both as a specific incident to be investigated and to assess whether it raises any wider organisational learning issues for the force.” 

John Crawley of the IPCC further added:

“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.”

“Individuals with specific communication needs can be misunderstood by police and other professionals and for the police there are specific safeguards for handling the needs of such vulnerable individuals.”

There are indeed *safeguards* (Human Rights, Equality Act, PACE etc) but these seem not to make much impact upon any officers’ dire performance when it comes to disability. Whatever safeguards there appear to be are invariably overlooked or dropped on a depressingly regular basis.

The following case is a famous case related to police bullying against disabled people.

ZH: The Acton Swimming Baths case

*The autism boy who was arrested in the swimming baths at Acton, London, and shackled with leg restraints once again involves the Met Police. It is claimed the police were at fault as they did not wait for the boy’s carer to arrive and give assistance:

“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.”

ZH’s case is examined at length in this excellent article by the UK Human Rights Blog. The writer concludes ‘The case highlights the need for there to be an awareness of the disability of autism within the public services.’ Indeed, this and many other disabilities too need the extra level of awareness to be practised by the UK’s judicial system.

Judge Sir Robert Nelson ruled there had been discrimination and false imprisonment against the boy with autism, as well as assault, battery and multiple breaches of both the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and the Human Rights Act.

Despite the Met Police being forced to pay compensation to ZH’s family for the sufferance their son had endured, its Commissioner, Sir Hogan-Howe applied to the courts in Feb 2013 to have this compensation overturned. Howe’s ploy failed. ZH’s father said of Howe’s cynical money-grab attempt: The thousands of pounds of public money spent by Commissioner Hogan-Howe defending the indefensible would be much better spent requiring his officers to treat people with disabilities humanely.”

Police bullying is accepted as a fact:

A common thread from the Acton swimming pool incident can be found in other related incidents. The parents/carers are not called/are ignored and police decide they are the authority who knows best what to do.

This action had fatal results for Robert Saylor, who had Downs, and was killed by police in Maryland, USA, after wanting to see a movie a second time. Police ignored advice on how to treat him.

“Our law enforcement system often fails to protect people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and, in some cases, is complicit in their abuse.”

Note the last few words – “in some cases, is complicit in their abuse.” Clearly the author recognised police were without a doubt at fault for these distressing episodes.

Well documented cases are usually with regards to mental health where victims have experienced police beatings, harassment, danger of asphyxia. Again a large occurrence of these have happened in the US, nevertheless the UK is not too far behind when one takes into consideration the many deaths in UK police custody.

Some 15% of the Met police’s attendances to incidents involve contact with those who have some form of mental health. One of the classic cases is that of Sean Rigg who died after being taken into custody. Subsequent inquires have shown that police attempted to cover up elements of what happened in order to absolve themselves of any blame for Sean’s death. The IPCC as the investigating body lent further outrage by way of incompetent work which missed out a lot of detail and was flawed. 

Clearly officers used “unsuitable force” on Sean Rigg in August 2008 at Brixton police station. His family finds frustration with inquiry after inquiry that seem to want to absolve the police of any wrong-doing and it appears only just recently (July 2015) that perhaps the beginning of the end is in sight.

Other mental health stories include Olaseni Lewis, Thomas Orchard and many others. The blog Scriptionite, tells us there have been nearly 3,000 MH deaths in police custody. The long list of failures in police techniques identified from the Rigg inquiry just as easily apply to those with disabilities too.

There has previously been some difficulty in believing that certain abuses can indeed be conducted by police officers. A major move in counteracting this disbelief came from the IPCC’s report of 2012, ‘The abuse of police powers to perpetrate sexual violence.’ The report says in regards to such matters of abuse:

“No one would wish to believe that this behaviour exists, in a service which seeks to help and protect, or where it is found can be attributed to no more than ‘one bad apple’. We do not know precisely how many people have been victims of police officers or staff abusing their powers; we are only aware of the individuals who have had the confidence to come forward.” 

It’s very important to understand its only a small cross section of actual abuses that we become aware of. No doubt many go unrecorded. Some go almost as far as the courts but are then settled by police forces before the judges lay their eyes on the casework.

The IPCC touches very briefly upon police abuses against the disabled. In the same 2012 report it tells us of an officer who raped a Ms Z, a woman with mental health issues, the IPPC concluded “This case contains two very worrying issues. Several opportunities were missed to identify what had happened and help Ms Z. Ms Z’s accounts of what happened…”

Clearly the IPCC is saying that opportunities were missed to act upon assertions made in Ms Z’s testimony. Besides, this isnt the only case that is known of. There are others too. In one case an officer sexually assaulted a vulnerable woman in a police locker-room at a major London railway terminus.

What is important is the IPCC’s report shows us both clear and deliberate attempts, as well as failures, result in police brushing aside disabled people’s testimonies. This particularly happened in the case of John Worboys, a London Taxi driver. He initially raped an autistic woman and another who had mental health issues. Neither were believed by Met Police officers and Worboys was let off. This gross incompetence ensured he went on to rape somewhere around 120 or more women. In a damning accusation against the police’s failures, Professor Betsty Stanko suggested rape had been effectively decriminalised.  

Disabled people have just as much right to proper justice as others. Disbelief, bullying or other form of coercion which results in gross misjustice is simply not on – not even in 2015.

A disabled asylum seeker who was harassed by police, has a quote that is most apt in concluding this essay. She said to her interviewers, “I said to police you think this world is just for you? No this is our world. Not just for you…” (UKDPC mural project 2013)

Clearly our world does not become theirs to bully.

**Article originally published 23rd February 2014. Updated 17th August 2015.

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