Sun, 22 Feb 2015

Police marking of autistics

A parliamentary written answer about creating an autism marker on the Police National Computer (PNC) was recently answered:

Lord Touhig (Labour)
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what progress has been made in considering whether police marker systems used to identify those with mental health and learning difficulties can be extended to those with autism as proposed in the report Think Autism.

Lord Bates (Conservative)
Work is continuing to establish whether a separate marker, specifically for autism, can readily be added to the Police National Computer in addition to the existing mental health marker, and to assess potential impacts on police force IT systems.

A follow-up written answer clarified the implementation plan:

Lord Touhig (Labour)
To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the Written Answer by Lord Bates on 5 February (HL4542), whether there is a deadline for completing work to establish whether a separate marker, specifically for autism, can be added to the Police National Computer […], whether the current police information technology systems are capable of accommodating an additional marker, specifically for autism, to be added to the Police National Computer.

Lord Bates (Conservative)
For the purposes of speed of implementation it is proposed to use an existing marker to encompass cases of autism rather than developing a specific marker, which would require further significant work and assessment. These proposals are expected to be considered by the Police National Computer Board within the next month.

The National Autistic Society’s (NAS) Policy & Parliamentary team provided a note titled Further information on Government proposals to establish a marker for autism on the Police National Computer. I am copying its content below and interspersing with some comments:

What is proposed?

A Police National Computer (PNC) record is created for anyone who is charged with an offence or receives a fixed penalty notice, community-based service, or caution. This may be for first time or continued offending.

This is incorrect. ‘The PNC holds details of people who are, or were, of interest to UK law enforcement agencies’. A PNC record is created at arrest and is retained until the individual becomes 100 year-old (if there are several dates of birth on record, the first one is used). See Notes on the Police National Computer for more details on the PNC.

Current Government proposals are to include a marker on these records that alerts criminal justice workers to a person’s autism. The Government’s proposal is to record autism within the “AT” marker, rather than to take longer creating a new marker: The AT marker signifies ‘Ailment’ and will remain on the record for the life of the specific record (e.g. being acquitted or the record being expunged). There is room for 60 text characters (max) to accompany the marker, e.g. “has autism, needs support”.

The NAS persists in its use of the offensive person first terminology (‘has autism’). Autism is an integral part of who we are and how we experience the world. Identity-first language should be preferred (’is autistic). Someone does not have Englishness or jewishness or left handedness, or autism, etc. One is English or jewish or left handed or autistic. This page has a good explanation of this semantical issue.

The NAS recognises that the use of the phrase “Ailment” is unfortunate. However, this will mean that information about someone’s autism can be recorded more quickly. It is important that criminal justice professionals receive training so that they can interpret this marker, know about the nature of autism and make suitable adjustments. To this end, the NAS is working with the Cross-Government group on autism and the criminal justice sector to develop training resources for professionals.

The NAS also believes that, while the recording of autism under the AT marker will provide a quick solution in the short term, the relevant authorities should continue to look to create a separate, more appropriate, marker that could record autism (and potentially other non-medical or non-mental-health conditions).

Even though the NAS finds the current proposal ‘unfortunate’ and short term, its policy advocates for the creation of a ‘marker that could record autism’ (and potentially other neurodivergences).

This is very concerning, as it is advocating for what will effectively be a database of autistics for policing purposes. That the records have to already exist to add such a marker is not as much a safety as it may look; one only has to remember the claims that Police ‘have made arrests just to get people on to the DNA database’. Such a database would criminalise and stigmatise autistics. Being autistic is not criminogenic; if anything it may increase the risk of being victim of crime.

Also there are many autistics who have not yet realised they are autistics. Would this marker apply solely to autistics having followed the medical pathway and been medically diagnosed? If the criminal justice system (CJS) became over reliant on such a marker, it would create the additional risk that the many autistics not having the marker would not be dealt with adequately.

Another unaddressed issue is what criteria would be used to decide to set such a marker for an individual? Does this imply that autistics would be forced to disclose their autism? Whether and when to disclose is an an individual right. This right to choose cannot be so lightly ignored.

What could be useful to record in a database accessible to emergency call handlers is communication needs, e.g., whether some one uses BSL as first language, is unable to make voice calls, may need an independent advocate, etc. That would still be useful only for those on this database so is a very limited solution.

What does this mean for a person with autism?

For most people with autism, this will have no effect at all as it only adds a marker to existing PNC record (i.e. there must have been a caution, charge or sanction).

If it will have no effect for most autistics, then what is the point of advocating for such a marker? What is the point of creating an ineffective, criminalising and stigmatising marker, albeit on a pre-existing PNC record? There are better solutions to improve the actions of those in the criminal justice system towards all autistics.

This PNC project is designed to make it easier for the police to know if a person has been diagnosed with autism so that they know they may need to make changes to their usual practices and make sure they are explaining what is happening so that it is understood. We believe that, on the whole, this could be useful for police and may help a number of interactions between people with autism and the police from escalating.

The NAS has heard of situations where, for example a confrontation between police and a person with autism has escalated because of the shouting of confusing/mixed instructions. While the marker will be limited to people who already have a PNC record, one possible virtue of the marker is that police would be alerted to a person’s autism and know to approach an arrest differently. This cannot replace appropriate training of criminal justice professionals, but would be intended to help those with training identify appropriate responses much more quickly

Good training is indeed essential. Some researchers, police officers and the Home Affairs Committee also agree. Police need to understand that atypical behaviour is just a different behaviour and not a sign of criminality. Some of the reasons given by the police for finding my behaviour suspicious and wrongfully arresting me were that I had avoided eye contact with them (a failure to interpret social cues appropriately) and was wearing a jacket allegedly too warm for the season, both of which are common autistic behaviours.

Training for the police and others in the criminal justice system on common autistic behaviours and sensory issues would be particularly helpful.

How can this information be used?

Given the sensitive nature of the information, it is vital that it is not used improperly – especially to stigmatise people with autism or to fuel misconceptions about them. We have asked criminal justice representatives how the proposal means the information within the marker will be used. This section summarises their response.

This is nice wishful thinking, but there are examples of the PNC, including information of a sensitive nature such as DNA profiles and photographs, used improperly. For an innocent to become an honorary criminal by being on a police database is stigmatising. If there’s an autism marker, it would be surprising for it to never be used improperly.

In data protection terms this information is classed as sensitive personal data so permission of the individual concerned should always be sought by any non-police agency seeking inclusion of relevant marker on PNC.

Police does not seek consent for inclusion of information on the PNC. If the information is to remain under the control of autistics, then a much simpler mechanism is to carry a card briefly explaining that one is autistics and possibly including some basic interaction advice. If one cannot talk to explain they are autistic, they may show their card, and if handcuffed, the police will find the card when searching the individual. The police must treat all who have special needs appropriately whether these are expressed verbally or with a card. And an autism alert card can be used in other settings as well.

As regards to data protection, databases have incorrect information, information can leak (or become lost on a train) and databases can be used for surveillance. Not entering additional information, especially in a police database, avoids all these issues. (After the police decided to take no further action in my case, they forgot to update the PNC accordingly for many months, in breach of the Data Protection Act. This is not a theoretical issue.)

The marker would be present for protective purposes. Suggested examples of (policing) decisions which it would usefully influence:

The NAS’ position

The NAS believes that the central issue for improving experiences of the criminal justice sector for people with autism is ensuring that all professionals have a good knowledge of autism and the changes that they need to make to practices and environments. We are currently working with the College of Policing to improve training for new police recruits and pushing for more training for other professionals.

Improving training is a positive step. Awareness is essential, but not sufficient. Acceptance of neurodivergences is what is needed.

In order to ensure that the right changes can be made, it is vital that the police, or other criminal justice sector professionals, know that someone has autism as soon as possible. There are a number of ways that this can be achieved: e.g. autism alert cards, encouraging people to declare their autism without fear of prejudice, improving training so professionals can identify the signs. A marker on the PNC is one other way that this could happen.

We believe that there are important safeguards that must be included, to ensure that sensitive data is used appropriately. Professionals must be sufficiently knowledgeable about autism to know that having autism is not an indicator of criminality or guilt. The marker should only be used in ways that will allow a person with autism the same protection of the law and access to justice as any person.

It is discriminatory and wrong for the police to keep markers which have nothing to do with criminality on categories of individuals for most of their lives. Police keeping tab on innocent inviduals is typical of a police state, not of a liberal democracy. Having an autism marker on the PNC will criminalise autistics. As was expressed in the European Court of Human Rights judgment in S. and Marper v. the UK: ‘Weighty reasons would have to be put forward by the Government before the Court could regard as justified such a difference in treatment of the applicants’ private data compared to that of other unconvicted people.’

By focusing on a marker identifying autistics, this discriminatory approach, rather than addressing the root causes of how traumatic encounters with the criminal justice system too often are for autistics, further legitimises the current societal attitude of blaming autistics for their poor treatment.

A much better solution to the problem this tries to address is two-fold: training of those in the criminal justice system and autism card schemes. Voluntarily carrying a card can help an autistic encountering the police to clarify that some of their behaviour may be atypical. A card is fully under the control of the individual. It is a helpful communication tool, not an ID card or get out of jail free card. And such cards can be used in other situation where communication may be difficult.

The police must serve all of society with respect and humanity. Autistics deserve equal treatment and the forced disclosure of our neurology to ensure ‘equality’ cannot be a requirement. The police need to be aware and more accepting of all neurodivergences, including of autism. An increased acceptance that many experience the world differently, would be of benefit to more than just autistics.

Hopefully the NAS will fully consider the many problems and risks of such a marker, review its policy and use its influence to help stop this proposal going any further.

This post was written in collaboration with Kabie Brook, chairperson of the Autism Rights Group Highland (ARGH). ARGH has designed an autism alert card available to all autistic people, children or adults, across the UK and carried by several hundreds autistics.


Some other recent parliamentary debates and written answers about autism:

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