It is fair to say that police around the world claim to protect and serve. The concept that the police are in place primarily to protect those they serve is an overriding principle in the concept of policing by consent in any free and democratic society. In the United Kingdom, the police are not routinely armed, and patrolling alone is far from uncommon. The police in the U.K. see their model of policing as the standard by which all other police services should be judged.
Sadly the reality is all too often totally different. The last few years have arguably seen U.K. police forces subjected to the most damning criticism as they lurch from failure to failure. Some cases are so outrageous that the police officers concerned and the forces that employ them should hang their heads in shame. All too often, police fail to protect the most vulnerable in society, and the consequences of those failures are sometimes just too horrible to contemplate.
The litany of police failures in the U.K. is just too numerous to mention. Over the past few weeks, we have seen police in South Yorkshire criticized over the deaths of 96 soccer fans at Hillsborough soccer stadium. The South Yorkshire police coverup was staggering in its scale and left families of those killed fighting for justice for over 25 years. The same force was also hauled over the coals for failing the victims of child sexual abuse.
The Jimmy Savile enquiry has thrown up accusations that police colluded to hide Savile’s activities. BBC News reported that both they and the police had numerous opportunities to stop Savile, but instead, they ignored the complaints and Savile was allowed to continue to have access to vulnerable people.
Today, it is being widely reported that police in Sussex have been strongly criticised over their treatment of an 11-year-old disabled girl.
The Guardian reports that police restrained the disabled child with handcuffs, leg restraints and even a hood. The child, known only as “Child H,” suffers from a rare neurological condition, similar to autism, that can cause sudden outbursts of anger. Police then held the child in police cells for more than 60 hours without access to an “appropriate adult.”
The U.K.’s 1984 Police and Criminal Evidence Act requires that children under 16-years-old or anyone of any age who is vulnerable should have access to an “appropriate adult,” someone who is interested in their welfare and can help them to understand their rights. The law also requires that no one should be held in custody for more than 24 hours without being charged. These rules can only be broken in very limited circumstances and must be authorised by a senior police officer.
BBC News reports that the Independent Police Complaints Commission have said that no fewer than 11 Sussex Police officers should face disciplinary proceedings as a result of their failings in this case. The real irony is that most of those to be disciplined are police custody staff. Custody officers authorize the detention of those arrested and are totally independent of any police investigation. A police custody officer has one role: the welfare of those in police custody.
ITV News reports that Child H’s mother released a statement through her legal advisors that was severely critical of Sussex Police.
“My daughter’s contact with the police in 2012 was nothing short of a nightmare for both of us. At the time her disability meant that she could behave in very challenging ways, but what she needed was patience, respect and the support of her mother. Instead she was locked up in a police station without me or anyone else who knew her for support.
“I know that some of the officers were doing their best, but I cannot understand why others thought it was appropriate to put an 11-year-old girl in handcuffs and leg restraints. I can’t accept that it will ever be appropriate for the police to hood a disabled child, regardless of how they behave. I call on Sussex Police to stop doing this to children immediately.”
Civil liberties lawyers have described the case of Child H as one of the most shocking examples of “inhuman and degrading” treatment of a disabled child in police custody.
For many people, it is perhaps not the failings of individual police officers but a collective and systemic failure that is the most disturbing aspect of this case.
During 60 hours of detention, Child H would have been looked after by at least six different police custody officers. Senior police officers would have reviewed the child’s detention on at least a further five occasions and yet not a single police officer intervened to protect a disabled child.
Almost unbelievably, Sussex Police Deputy Chief Constable defended police actions in the case of Child H, saying that police “have a duty to protect officers and the public when we are called on for help, whether the threat comes from a child or someone who is unwell.”
Many will feel that rather than examine police actions, Sussex Police are all too happy to blame the victim, in this case, a disabled 11-year-old girl.
[Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images]