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Police restraint of girl with disabilities highlights poor treatment of vulnerable people in custody

Last week saw police strongly criticised by the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) after an 11-year-old disabled girl was hooded, handcuffed and detained for more than 60 hours.

The child suffered from a rare neurological disorder similar to autism, a condition that could cause her to become violent and self-harm. She was detained by Sussex Police on four separate occasions between February and March 2012 and was placed in handcuffs, leg restraints and a spit hood.

The police force refused to let her parents see their daughter and failed to provide her with an “appropriate adult” over more than 60 hours in custody during which she was twice held in police cells overnight. This is despite the fact that since 1984, children and vulnerable adults have been entitled to extra help at the police station, through an appropriate adult scheme where an adult attends and assists them through the entire custody process.

Being detained in a police cell would be frightening for any of us but for a child with disabilities, subject to forcible restraint and hooding, the experience must have been terrifying. This treatment shows a shocking disregard for the clear police guidelines that are there to protect vulnerable children and adults and raises the need for an urgent review of the use of spit hoods.

In my experience representing those mistreated whilst in police custody, I have encountered custody sergeants regularly failing to consider the need for an appropriate adult to assist children or vulnerable adults. They often refuse to allow parents to take that role, and are likely to discourage family from attending the police station at all.

The overzealous use of spit hoods – a practice that is particularly distressing and humiliating for those with mental health issues – is also not uncommon. The IPCC called upon Sussex Police to drop its policy of using spit hoods on disabled children if they are deemed to pose a risk but my view is that their use on individuals in general should be reviewed and use on children banned altogether.

The IPCC found that eleven officers and one member of police staff have cases to answer for misconduct and criticised a widespread failure in documenting the use of force on the child.

The case highlights a real lack of appreciation of the needs of those with mental health problems and the particular vulnerability of children when in custody. More must be done to learn lessons from these troubling incidents with significant improvements in the training given to our officers.