How to improve police responses to people with disability

The way police respond to incidents or situations involving people with a disability, whether as victims, offenders or witnesses, is a sensitive and problematic issue worldwide. In October 2021, the Australian Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability published a research report on the subject, prepared by researchers at the University of New South Wales in Sidney.

The research aims, among other things, to build an evidence base of these responses in Australia, highlight the resulting situations of risk that derive from them and identify potential improvements in first responses to emergencies involving people with disability.

In addition to a review of the academic literature (both Australian and international), the research project collected data on police policies and practices, analysed and studied specific cases to learn about the experiences of people with disability and identify the key issues, challenges and opportunities in police responses, and consulted disability advocates and police officers to examine the experiences and views of both parties.

In regard to existing academic knowledge, it’s important to note that most of the research focused on experiences in which people with a cognitive disability or complex social disadvantage were criminalised. Furthermore, most of the literature demonstrates that police responses to people with disability are frequently deeply inadequate. One of the key shortcomings highlighted is the capacity to reliably record data about people with disability in Australian police databases.

The police experiences were grouped into nine areas for analysis:

  • the existence of an action plan or similar for people with a disability;
  • data collection on situations involving people with a disability;
  • the existence of interlocutors or liaison persons;
  • advisory mechanisms;
  • corporate leadership;
  • accessible information;
  • training;
  • procedures, and
  • other experiences.

The results highlight significant differences in how the eight police jurisdictions manage each of these areas, as only one (Victoria) had experience in all nine, while another (the Northern Territory) had none at all.

The interviews with disability advocates revealed a remarkable consistency with the findings of the academic literature. In addition to factors related to people’s disabilities, they also drew attention to the influence of other issues, such as the socio-economic and cultural factors of poverty, disadvantage, discrimination, racism and sexism. Although the interviews highlighted many examples of poor or harmful practices, they also gave examples of good practice.

The main conclusion of the study, as previously mentioned, is that “police responses to people with disability are, on the whole, inadequate, frequently damaging to the well-being of people with disability and can significantly negatively impact on their rights to justice”. Two co-occurring factors emerged as fundamental to the causation of, and remedies to, these inadequacies. Firstly, the increase in the number of cases in which police are called on to respond to social problems, even if they may not be the appropriate responders. Secondly, the reduction in funding for the appropriate social services needed to provide that response. Lastly, the report proposes lines of improvement in two areas: policy issues (the collection and analysis of data on responses to people with a disability who have lived experience of criminalisation and ineffective policing responses, among others) and specific practices (such as the development of procedural guidance for frontline police, or mandatory requirements to use intermediaries when dealing with people with disability).

The report is available on the Commission’s website, which, in addition to the full version, provides an “easy-to-read” format with an illustrated summary to explain the ideas in the document.


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