Autism and Stop & Search: the need to educate on both sides

 

Police Oracle spoke with the Met Detective Superintendent who co authored recent Autism and Stop and Search guidance.

 

By: Cachella Smith

“Stop and Search is contentious, and it Superintendent Dion Brown. can so easily go wrong,” according to Met Detective Recently the debate has been heavily focussed on those from ethnic minority backgrounds but how is stop and search affected when officers are interacting with those who are neur odivergent?

“[Stop and Search] is intrusive, you’re putting hands on obviously with people who are autistic that can be a big trigger and could then lead to a meltdown or an escalation of violent behaviour for example,” Det Supt Brown explains.

 

“Then there are the things they teach us as brand new cops in training school regarding grounds for stop and searches – avoiding eye contact, shifting on their feet, an individual that looks nervous or anxious, trying to walk away, not engaging.

“In many cases, people would use those grounds to say, right, I’m going to stop and search this person. But all of those are quite stereotypical behaviours that you would see for somebody with autism. “What’s more, individuals with autism want any interaction that makes them feel uncomfortable to be over with as quickly as possible.

A lot of people will say what they think you want to hear, give you the answers that they think that you want, to speed up that conversation and get it done. “When they’re in an anxious state and they’ve got a police officer asking them questions that could mean admitting to all sorts of things that they haven’t done – saying yes to something when the answer is no.”

In 2019, the Met, along with BTP and City of London, launched “Autism Alert Cards”. The idea came from a member of the Independent Advisory Group – Amanda Gibbs – who met Det Supt Brown after reporting a crime.

A working group was established within the Met and the idea pitched to the Disability Hate Crime Working Group. Since then, the initative has won the College of Policing’s Diversity Award (in 2020) and over 10,000 cards have been issued. A tri-force initiative – members of the public can email in to an inbox that is monitored by a volunteer at the Met to get a card issued.

The cards have been funded through POCA and feature the police crests of the three forces. Other forces have since launched their own versions. Is it something that could be open to abuse? “Not really because there’s no real benefit to having it,” Det Supt Brown explains. “It’s not a ‘get out of jail free’ card, it’s an information card signalling that this person might need extra support.

“Stereotypical autistic behaviours might lead to an increased chance an individual could be stop and searched. This helps officers understand the situation better, but it doesn’t mean that if they’ve done something we wouldn’t take action against them.”

It’s not the only initiative Det Supt Brown has worked to raise awareness of autism. More recently, he co-authored specific guidance on autism and stop and search with Barrister Sean Kennedy.

 

He emphasises that “the onus [for learning] is on both sides” – that the guidance is both for the autistic community and for police officers – adding that it’s important for individuals themselves to understand what powers officers have and why they might be using them.

 

The guidance has been shared with all regional forces as well as with community groups and charities. Forces have since been in touch seeking to include the guidance within training.

And training is an area where Det Supt Brown would like to see more consideration of neurodivergence. “Unfortunately there’s not a lot of awareness or training out there at the moment,” he says. “We seem to rely on specific events, Neurodiversity Awareness Week for example – although these are always really well attended.

“I do understand the challenges – there’s always different competing demands and you can overload with training. But when you look at the amount of incidents that have maybe left us open to criticism and the disproportionate number of people with neurodivergent conditions that find themselves in the criminal justice system I think is really important that we do do that.”

For any officers who haven’t been able to access training, what would he advise? The focus, he says, has to be on communication. “We’ve got a very inexperienced workforce at the moment particularly on the frontline.

“A lot of people don’t benefit from having a really experienced officer to work with or to learn from and there is a little bit of street craft to be had from experience – how you speak to people and how you spot things.

“Be clear about what your grounds are, be clear about why you’re doing what you’re doing, and talk them through it.

Tell them what you’re doing and why. “Also – understand that the impact of what you’re doing – that it could have a vastly greater impact on that individual, because of their sensory issues not liking to be touched, for example.

There’s things you could do like turning your radio down or making sure you give that person time to respond when you’re asking them questions. “Follow your guidance, make sure you remain within the confines of what you’re legally allowed and use clear communication – then you should be confident in what you’re doing.”

As for why it’s important – it comes back to trust and confidence. But good communication and awareness can make the difference between a positive interaction and one that escalates, in these cases even more accutely.

 

A Met Autism Support Group for those within policing now has over 350 members. Det Supt Brown says it’s helped people speak about their own experiences where they might have been hiding a diagnosis beforehand but further it’s enabled others get a diagnosis where they were hesitant to do so before due to concerns of the fallout for their career. People might worry about saying the wrong thing but it’s worse to say nothing Det Supt Brown If you say the wrong thing, apologise and learn from it, but once someone feels they can open up to you, they can access support and you’ll get the best from them.

Det Supt Brown’s work in this area came about as two of his children were diagnosed with autism. “I didn’t know a great deal about autism until I had my son, and then I just wanted to learn as much as possible, so I could be the best parent I could for him.

“That’s why I’m passionate about us getting it right. It’s the two things I care about the most policing and my kids. “When we get it wrong it stings and then particularly if we get it wrong like a double whammy. “That’s why I want to make us better.”

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