A British court has awarded a teenager who is severely autistic and epileptic £28,250 (about $44310) in damages from the London Metropolitan police after they pulled him out of a swimming pool and handcuffed him. The teenager, identified as ZH by the court, had jumped into the water while fully clothed in September 2008. According to the Guardian, ZH’s lawyer, Tony Murphy, said that he became “fixated with the water as a result of his autism and was reluctant to leave the pool.”
Against the advice of ZH’s carer, the pool staff called the police, who “almost immediately took hold [of him], causing him to jump away from them and into the water,” according to Murphy. The police then applied “high-level force to remove him from the pool”; ZH suffered moderate post-traumatic stress disorder as a result.
Legal counsel for the police emphasized that “these are very difficult issues for the emergency services, including the police, to deal with” while arguing that they should have some “margin in which they can act without their actions being found to be unlawful.”
The judge did note that the case is an example of the complicated situations that police and first-responders can face. In the US, indeed, police are too often called in situations when an individual with developmental disabilities or mental health issues is in crisis and too often because appropriate support services do not exist or have been eliminated due to budget cuts. Still, in view of ZH suffering moderate PTSD and of the extent of his disabilities including his being non-verbal, it seems that excessive and unnecessary force was used. In addition, the pool staff may have over-reacted and ought to have respected what ZH’s carer said.
ZH’s father observed that “the commissioner is still trying to justify this ill-treatment and refusing to provide training or an apology.” Indeed, while the judge’s ruling acknowledges the damages caused to ZH by the police’s treatment, what is needed is training and education of the police regarding how to handle situations when an individual is in crisis.
There have been a number of cases in the US involving police using excessive force on autistic individuals, sometimes with tragically fatal results.I only know about ZH’s case from news reports but I could see my severely autistic teenage son Charlie jumping into a pool and then not responding, or not seeming to respond, to requests to get out but eventually doing so on his own time. Here in New Jersey police have to have some instruction about autism, about why autistic and others with developmental disabilities might respond in unexpected ways and about strategies for approaching them (more are provided by Dennis Debault). We have had some incidents in which the police were called and they have, for the most part, asked us first about how best to approach Charlie and seemed to understand that his difficult behaviors are the result of neurological and other distress.
Just this Sunday, a 12-year-old boy with Asperger’s Syndrome was arrested on the grounds that he had shoplifted a $2.95 greeting card from a store; the child had very likely simply forgotten that he was holding onto the card when he left the store said his mother, Jacqui Feldman. A teenager with Asperger’s Syndrome was recently shot and killed by police who had been called to his Illinois home; the teenager was in crisis and the call was not the first. This tragic incident, and the distress caused to ZH, should be wake-up calls of the need to educate police and first-responders about autism and disabilities.
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Photo by Keith Allison