Should police officers behave differently with autistic suspects? Two recent commentaries support the changes I suggested in my written evidence to the Home Affairs Committee.
Researchers found that conventional police interview techniques are not effective for people with autism:
Police find interviewing and interacting with witnesses and suspects with autism a real challenge, a study has revealed - highlighting that the ways officers have been taught to interview are at odds with what is needed in these situations. Existing interview techniques tend to focus on open questions, only later narrowing down to closed questions, but research shows that people with autism may need focused questions from the outset.
The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)-funded research studied what does, and does not, work when police interview people with autism. The researchers - Dr Katie Maras, University of Bath, and Dr Laura Crane, City University London - are calling for better training of police and criminal justice professionals as, at present in the UK, these groups currently have no standard compulsory training about autism. […]
My experience of the police interviewing process, as described in my evidence, matches this research:
10. As I was innocent and did not know any better at the time, I made the mistake to refuse to call a solicitor. During the police interview, one question particularly bothered me. The interviewing officer after asking me questions about my laptop such as 'has it got anything on there about public underground?' and 'has it got anything on there about plans for any terrorism act?', asked 'has it got anything on there that might be construed as causing a public nuisance?'. The correct answer would have been 'yes' as I have a word processor, an email client, etc that could all be useful to a terrorist and most likely can be construed to be of use for anything including causing a public nuisance. However, I also realised that answering the positive would not be helpful to me and challenged the question when the investigating officer just wanted answers.
An obvious way forward to make police encounters less damaging to autistics would be to improve training. Inspector Michael Brown, who is on secondment to the College of Policing as Mental Health Coordinator, recommends on his Mental Health Cop blog to have autism awareness training for police officers:
[…] I've argued before that I see the point of specific autism awareness training for police officers because we know that where officers deal with incidents involving someone with autism there could be considerations that wouldn't necessarily apply to other situations, if they can be accommodated. I'm not sure if that could be said of all of the above conditions, however. Would it matter to the policing of an emergency mental health incident whether someone who appeared to be in distress was psychotic because of schizophrenia or because of bipolar or because of Addison's disease? Probably not. […]
These two commentaries support the recommendations I made to the Home Affairs Committee:
12. An essential recommendation would be for all front-line police officers to receive some training about the autism spectrum. This training ideally would involve those on the autism spectrum. I understand that a few police officers have had sessions with the Asperger London Area Group (ALAG). This training should be made more generally available.
13. At the very least, front-line officers should read the ACPO-endorsed Autism: a guide for criminal justice professionals publication of the National Autistic Society.
14. With such training it is hoped that police officers realise that a behaviour different from that of a neurotypical is just different rather than suspicious; consider hyper- and hypo-sensitivities that the public they interact with may have; and use clearer interviewing questions.