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Thursday, 15 March 2012
Out of their depth: What the Metropolitan Police should learn from the case of the autistic boy in the swimming pool
It is a matter of immense regret that Bernard Hogan-Howe, the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, is seeking leave to appeal in the case of ZH, the autistic boy who was restrained, placed in leg irons and put into a police van, confused, dripping wet and terrified, after diving into a swimming pool in north London. This case ought to be a turning point in the way the police deal with autism and disability, one that ultimately benefits all concerned. Its lessons are plain to see, but sadly Hogan-Howe’s preferred course of action is to bury his head in the sand.
The commissioner seems personally slighted that ZH’s family were awarded the fairly modest sum of £28,250 for this ordeal: of this, £750 covered loss of liberty and pain and distress during the 40 minutes he spent bound hand and foot in a police van. Hardly a ruinous amount. The greatest share, £12,500, was for the exacerbation of ZH’s other condition, epilepsy.
A folk version of this story has grown up since the judgment was handed down suggesting that the police are the victims in this case. They were, after all, dealing with a 16-year-old boy who was fully clothed, unable to swim, and a danger to himself and other pool users. Almost all of this narrative, however, is flatly contradicted by the facts of the case as set out in the judgment. I accept, by the way, that the police officers who responded to the call were not negligent or careless in the exercise of their duty. They were simply out of their depth. This, though, is precisely the problem that Hogan-Howe fails to grasp.
ZH - or Josh, as he was called by the family’s solicitor - was at the pool with a group from his special needs school. Five children and five staff were on the trip, which was designed to familiarise them with the pool environment as preparation for learning to swim. However, there were no plans to go swimming and so the children were in their day clothes.
The lifeguards became concerned when Josh became fixated on the water and refused to leave the poolside. His carers were trying to lure him away with the promise of food and bananas. The carers had told the lifeguards that ‘if you touch him, he will jump in’ and advised them to give him time to step away. One manager called the police and told them there was a boy who was ‘getting aggressive’. In point of fact he wasn't. This was the first mistake and one which coloured the police’s response.
When the first two police officers arrived Josh was not in the pool. He had spent the previous 40 minutes standing by the edge and gazing into the water. There was no sign he wanted to dive in, but there were fears he might fall. One of the police officers consulted the carers about the nature of Josh’s disability. Unfortunately, it was at this point that her colleague went up to Josh, introduced herself and tapped him on the back. This was the second mistake. As predicted, Josh plunged in.
The point where he jumped into the water was near the place where the shallow end slopes away into the deep end. The water here came up to his chest. Josh at first showed no signs of distress and splashed about playfully. There was, though, legitimate concern because of his poor sense of danger. He began wading towards the deep end. By this time three more police officers had arrived. None of them, according to the court, consulted the carers on what course of action to take. Communication between the police and the people best qualified to advise them was now non-existent. This was the third and, I would argue, the most grievous mistake.
Three lifeguards jumped in at the deep end. One took Josh’s jacket off and together they ushered him back to the shallow end. Josh was no longer in danger - the water here was beneath his waist level and he was surrounded by police officers and lifeguards. It should have been an easy matter, if perhaps a time-consuming one, to lead him out of the water, with the support of his carers. Instead the police, who were by now not speaking with the carers, unilaterally chose to physically restrain him. This was the fourth mistake, and the one that escalated a bad situation into a disaster.
What’s aggravating about this episode is that the top brass at the Metropolitan Police seem wholly unwilling to learn the lessons of that day. The court recognised that the officers did not act out of malice or brutality; otherwise they would been hit with punitive damages. Rather, as a telling sentence from paragraph 129 puts it, ‘They were simply caught up in a process which they had started, continued to be involved in and felt unable to stop or control.’
The response of the police officers in Josh’s situation was clouded by ignorance. Their training was wholly inadequate for the situation they faced. They made little attempt to consult Josh’s carers on how best to handle him or what the precise nature of his disability was. They were not helped by the swimming pool manager who told them Josh was being aggressive when in fact he wasn’t. Every decision the officers took aggravated a situation which, right up until its final stages, could have been resolved with no great trauma. The carers must share some of the blame for not supervising Josh more closely and failing to intervene. But the essential problem was that the police opted for a procedure - emergency physical restraint - designed to deal with aggressive and threatening individuals, not disabled teenagers standing in the shallow end of a swimming pool.
A little liaison with Josh’s carers at any of at least three stages could have prevented an entirely avoidable outcome. The police at the swimming pool felt they had no alternative but to restrain Josh and throw him, in his wet clothes, into the back of a van. That is a dreadful reflection on the level of training they receive on dealing with disabled people. But far worse is the Met commissioner's dismissal of the need to improve on it. If the Met need lessons in dealing with autistic people, they need only pick up the phone to their colleagues in Scotland, where autism-related training, has been devised in collaboration with the National Autistic Society.
The phrase ‘institutional racism’ has been much abused since it was coined in the Macpherson report. It was devised in recognition of the fact that tackling racism was not simply a matter of changing the attitudes of individual officers. Often the problem was that the systems and procedures used by the police were inherently discriminatory, regardless of the officer’s intentions. The ZH case has exposed a similar problem with the treatment of people with disabilities, especially a disability such as autism, which varies widely and is often invisible.
It took a violent death for the police to face up to the problem of institutional racism and learn the necessary lessons. We can only hope that they can tackle the institutional ignorance of disabled people’s needs at an earlier stage. As the last paragraph of the judgment states: ‘The case highlights the need for there to be an awareness of the disability of autism within the public services. It is to be hoped that this sad case will help bring that about.’ As long as Bernard Hogan-Howe keeps his head in the sand, however, those hopes will be forlorn.