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Jean-Yves Gilg

Editor, Solicitors Journal

Police mistreatment of the vulnerable

Police mistreatment of the vulnerable


The ongoing debate concerning the treatment of vulnerable youths while in police custody has been on the news agenda again lately, following the Independent Police Complaints Commission investigation into Sussex Police's arrest and treatment of an 11-year-old girl with mental health problems.

The female, known as 'Child H', was arrested by police for low-level offences using handcuffs, leg restraints, and a 'spit hood', and then detained in custody for 60 hours without an appropriate adult being present.

Quite rightly, there was public outrage when this story hit the headlines - not least of all because of the disturbing use
of spit hoods, which, without question, should be banned with immediate effect. But sadly, as a criminal solicitor, a lack of police awareness around the treatment of the most vulnerable in our society is something I see time and
time again.

I recently dealt with a 19-year-old male, diagnosed with Asperger's and learning disabilities, who was reported as missing from his care home. Police detained the male, who had no criminal convictions, and called him a taxi, but he became distressed when he was separated from friends.

In attempting to calm the situation, the police detained the youth on the ground. At this point, he attempted to bite the officers.

At the police station, I
formed the view that this male potentially lacked capacity and was extremely vulnerable. I expressed my concerns to the custody sergeant, who informed me that he would continue with the interview irrespective of my views. The youth was charged. Only after psychiatric assessment was it confirmed that he was not fit to plead or stand trial.

Thankfully, due to a sensible and experienced prosecutor, the view was taken that it was not in the interest of justice to pursue the prosecution, but this was on the day of trial, after months of stress for the youth and significant cost to the public purse. Had my initial concerns been taken into account, the vulnerable detained person, complainants, and public purse would have been much better served.

Sadly, this incident was not a one-off occurrence, but an example of how mental health problems are still largely misunderstood by the very professions that have a duty of care to those concerned.

According to mental health charity Mind, one in ten children and young people aged five to 16 suffer from a diagnosable mental health disorder - that
is around three children in
every class.

Furthermore, 95 per cent of imprisoned young offenders have a mental health disorder, with many of these battling more than one disorder.

The situation not only highlights a requirement for improved training and awareness of police officers,
but also the need for better support for those families dealing with mental health and behavioural conditions, who often do not realise how ill equipped police are to deal with such situations. Calling the police rarely, in my experience, results in diversion from the criminal justice system.

In the Queen's Speech, the government undertook to ban the use of police cells as places of safety for those under 18 years of age. It is time for this promise to become a reality.

Hayley Cooper is a solicitor and higher court advocate at Kirwans @KirwansLaw