Police are “frequently damaging” people with a disability, undermining their right to justice, and enabling violence and exploitation against them, a new report finds.
The disability royal commission on Tuesday released a report that made damning findings about the way police respond to people with a disability.
The report, prepared by a group of researchers and academics, was commissioned to assist the royal commission in making its recommendations.
Police responses were found to be “on the whole, inadequate”, failing to promote safety and protect people with a disability, whether they were victims, witnesses and alleged offenders.
The justice system, the report finds, enables rather than prevents violence, abuse, exploitation and neglect.
“The evidence also unambiguously shows that First Nations people with disability experience intensified negative consequences of these failures of policing,” it finds.
The report canvasses a series of disturbing case studies, including one in which police failed to give a man with a severe intellectual disability the opportunity to have a support person while they interviewed him and secured admissions to crimes, leading to imprisonment and later homelessness.
In another case, police were called to help find a man with an intellectual disability who had left his group home. Not understanding that police were there to help him, the man ran from officers and kicked at a dog in his attempt to get away.
The officers pinned him down and charged him with assault and animal cruelty, despite explanations from his lawyers that he did not understand the situation due to his disability, anxiety disorder, and his fear of the dog.
The report also highlights the case of an 80-year-old woman from a migrant background, who approached a police station seeking a counselling referral after an argument with her daughter. Police believed she wanted an apprehended violence order taken out against her daughter, and issued one without her knowledge, further fracturing her relationship with the daughter.
The report points to two fundamental causes of the “inadequate and damaging responses” of police. The first is the expansion of the role of law enforcement and its use as the “default institutional response to the social, cultural and economic forms of disadvantage that propel people with disability into contact with the police”.
The second is the reduction of funding for proper social and human services to support people with a disability.
“Central to improving police responses to disadvantaged people with disability is recognition that what members of this group require is not a police or criminal justice response,” the report said. “It is rather, a trauma-informed, culturally safe, community-based and holistic social service response.”
Little data is held by police on their interactions with people with a disability. But successive inquiries over two decades have found contact with the criminal justice system is far more likely to occur for people with a cognitive disability, people with psychosocial disabilities, and women with a disability who are experiencing violence.
Data from Australia and abroad suggests about 15% of prisoners have an intellectual disability, compared to just 2.9% of people in the general community.
One of the report’s authors, University of New South Wales emeritus professor, Leanne Dowse, said the solution is not simply just better training for police.
Prof Dowse said training and cultural change were needed alongside alternative first responders for people with a disability. The report points to First Nations-led self-determined local community driven initiatives such as Indigenous night patrols, and community-led approaches taken in Bourke and Walgett as examples of alternative, non-policing methods of responding to people with a disability.
“To be fair to police, I don’t think we’re saying that all police are terrible and it’s always awful,” she said. “But for this group in particular – who are often people who are very distressed, they may also have mental health issues, may have a drug and alcohol issue – police have got to make a quick decision often, and really their default position is use of force.”
“That is really the absolutely wrong thing for this group of people.”