What is ‘Liaison and Diversion’?
Well, on the basis of this BBC news report it is clearly not diversion away from police custody. Neither should L&D be confused with ’Street Triage’, which is a distinct and, as yet, not widely available alternative to Section 136 of the Mental Heath Act. In a recent debate on Autism and Criminal Justice, the Policing Minister, Nick Hurd, wrongly asserted that Sec. 136 could be used as a mechanism to divert autistic people away from police custody to a place of safety where they could receive assessment and care. Not true, Sec. 136 can only be used for people suspected of suffering from a mental illness who are in need of an urgent psychiatric assessment. Autism is not a mental illness, nor is it a ‘treatable’ condition, and so unless an autistic person has a co-occurring mental illness (like Jack in the film report), there is currently no mechanism to divert autistic people from arrest and police custody to an assessment of their health or social care needs.
But for the most part, L&D is not an alternative for the mentally ill either. BBC Reporter Jeremy Cooke’s report shows and describes arresting mentally vulnerable people and putting them into police cells in custody suites (some restrained and handcuffed) as the first step in liaison and diversion. This film not only demonstrates that L&D is not an alternative to arrest and custody but that allowing mentally vulnerable people to reach crisis point and then arresting them is a shocking alternative to providing proactive mental health services. Also, that transferring NHS staff to work in the criminal justice system is clearly more cost effective than providing quality mental health services in the community that could prevent people from going into crisis in the first place.
This report is blatant publicity to distract from what are failing mental health services (and practically non-existent autism services) and give the public the impression that something new and radical is taking place. Police custody sergeants have always had access to ‘health care professionals’, and a statutory responsibility to get them to attend custody suites where concerns have been raised about a detainees mental vulnerability. And so what is so radical about this film? The reporter selects his words for predictable impact: ’seasoned’ custody sergeant and ‘specialist, highly trained and experienced’ nurses. He goes on to chirpily acknowledge, “after his assessment Jack is in a cell”. Jack, who has a long list of convictions and suicide attempts, is later bailed. So again, what is new? Interestingly, there is no mention of the Appropriate Adult in the film, or any sign of one.
When the reporter asks Jack (who is autistic as well as having schizophrenia) what he would say to people who believe that liaison and diversion is a soft option, Jack replies, “Can’t get to work because of a broken arm. Well what they going to do? Fix it or what? Some people have broken heads. Take a walk in someone else's shoes and see how you feel.”
What Jeremy Cooke’s film shows is the degree to which the criminal justice system has taken over from failing mental health services whose funding as been cut to the bone. This is the subtext of Kate Davies, NHS England Director of Health & Justice, contribution to the film:
“There are many reasons why people absolutely should be in a police custody suite. I think it's important to say that one of the things about liaison and diversion that it is not to divert people away from the due process of the law.” She then goes on to acknowledge that, “people are hitting the criminal justice system in a moment of crisis.”
And here, although acknowledging the devastating effect on people with mental health problems of ending up in a police cell, the reporter even manages to turn this into a virtue:
“Clearly, many in these cells are struggling with mental health problems, for some it is having a devastating impact. Most police forces in England have adopted this system. Soon it will be all of them. Of course it costs the NHS money but at the top, they calculate its worth it. Patients get the help they need but not at the expense of justice.”
The much more thoughtful, intelligent and informed film, Injustice, goes on to show the rest of this story: the way that mentally vulnerable people are being warehoused in Britains prisons because NHS and Social Services are failing to provide the care and safeguarding they need.
Does this campaign suggest that all autistic people are criminalised by the police?
Of course not, but the individual stories on this site are about people who were criminalised, many with devastating consequences for them and their families. They are being collected together on this site because they represent systemic failures of the criminal justice system and the failure of those with responsibility for safeguarding vulnerable people. Claims, such as that by the NPAA, that the stories on this site only represent a 'tiny fraction' of autistic people's contact with the police, and that, 'it is the few bad experiences that tend to attract attention', raises the need for further research. The truth is, we do not know how many autistic people who come into contact with the criminal justice system are harmed by the process, but those whose stories are told on this site are too many.
Does being autistic mean that someone does not have the capacity for criminal intent?
Of course not, however, research suggests that autistic people are far less likely to knowingly engage in criminal behaviour than their non-autistic equivalents, this is precisely because having a strong moral compass and following rules is a common feature of autism. Even so, autistic people will come into contact with the criminal justice system significantly more often than non-autistic individuals (Browning and Caulfield 2008) and statistically are seven times more likely to be arrested (Curry, Posluszny, and Kraska, 1993).
Where no crime has taken place at all, autistic behaviour and communication are frequently misinterpreted and misunderstood (Adam's, Faruk's, Daniel's, Sam's, Max's, Talha's, Alex's, and Panda's stories). And even where a behaviour could be regarded as criminal (Bradley's, Marcus', and Luke's stories), the autistic person is often unaware their behaviour is criminal. For someone to be criminally culpable, actus reus (the act of crime) and mens rea (the intent to commit that crime) need to be established but frequently are not (Berryessa, 2014). In such cases a diagnosis of autism may explain an offender’s behaviour and actions, which could result in diminished criminal responsibility (Freckelton, 2013; Woodbury-Smith & Dein, 2014).
Will this website discourage autistic people from trusting the police or reporting crimes?
That is not our intention but the stories on this site do make appalling and disturbing reading and we make no apology for that. Their voices should and must be heard. In Trewen’s case he should absolutely not have trusted the police when he reported a murder to them—as a result he is serving a life sentence himself (as is Alex) under the now discredited and archaic common law of 'joint enterprise'. As for Daniel's story, when he was the victim of a hate crime and went to the police for protection, he was handcuffed and locked in a cell for nine hours.
We recognise that the police have a challenging and difficult job to do. Something acknowledged in an extensive study conducted by Crane et al., (2016) which included 400 police officers as participants. The results indicate that only 42% of the officers were satisfied with the way they dealt with autistic individuals and only 37% of the police officers had been trained in how to work with autistic people. We also recognise that police are not frontline mental health workers, yet they respond to far too many situations that should be attended instead by specialist clinicians and local authority social workers who have the statutory responsibility to assess and safeguard autistic people—unfortunately not always the skills. The Government clearly have the ultimate responsibility to ensure that these services are available to safeguard and protect autistic people from being criminalised and abused simply for being autistic.
This campaign is not only concerned with preventing these miscarriages of justice from happening in the future but providing justice to those people whose lives are still being ruined today, many of whom remain in UK prisons—currently being used as warehouses for the mentally vulnerable.
In light of a Parliamentary debate in November 2017 which drew on recent research that autistic people are nine times more likely than the average population to take their own lives, imagine the suicide risk in autistic prisoners, particularly if they are a young person.
The above issues are discussed in greater detail on this page