ACT Policing officers mistakenly arrest man with cerebral palsy for being ‘intoxicated’, disability advocates claim in parliamentary inquiry

A man with cerebral palsy was arrested and detained by ACT Policing officers who thought he was drunkenly unsteady on his feet, say a peak group for people with disability.

Advocacy For Inclusion said their client, who spent a night in the police watch house, had tried to explain he had a disability before being arrested.

They alleged that the officers in attendance believed the man was “intoxicated, unsteady on his feet and slurring his words” and told him he was “full of shit”.

The man was given a summons and the case is currently before the courts, Advocacy for Inclusion said.

Advocacy For Inclusion’s senior policy advisor, Bonnie Millen, said the incident, which occurred earlier this year, was illustrative of the problems people with disability faced when they interacted with police.

“We’ve had, in the past, [situations] where people with intellectual disability are perceived as intoxicated rather than having an intellectual disability,” Ms Millen said.

“It is a problem where there is an attitude to the way police have been trained to deal with members of the public.”

The incident was documented in the group’s submission to a parliamentary inquiry scrutinising the role of ACT Policing, which began this week in the ACT Legislative Assembly.

Better training to appropriately engage with people with disability

ACT Legislative Assembly
An evaluation of ACT Policing began in the ACT Legislative Assembly this week.(ABC News)

Ms Millen said a lack of training for police lead to false assumptions about people with disabilities, and that police cadets needed more information about how to appropriately engage with people with disability.

“It’s kind of created a fear in attending a police station to report a crime,” Ms Millen told the committee in the first hearing of the inquiry.

“The treatment that some people with disabilities have experienced in the justice system for many years has resulted in police feeling like they can’t communicate with the person.

“[We need] to enable new police officers to come on to the beat or other areas of police matters, to be able to communicate effectively with people with disability, to ensure they have equal rights to justice from the very start.”

She said that while mental health training for police had improved, disability training had not.

Ms Millen said that while Advocacy for Inclusion had a positive relationship with ACT Policing, a lack of training would continue to lead to false assumptions.

“People with disabilities will continue to have a bad experience with dealing with police and we want to make sure that that is improved,” she said.

‘Police wallet card’ could ease communication tension

A cardboard communique for people with disability to hand to officials, such as police.
An example of the Advocacy for Inclusion wallet card that people with disability can hand to officials, such as police.(Supplied)

One solution Advocacy For Inclusion have designed is a “police wallet card”, which a person with disability could show an officer if they require support.

Conversely, the card could provide police with contacts they could call on behalf of the person with disability.

Ms Millen said a trial of the card eased tension for people with disability, allowing them to approach an officer with confidence, and led to better engagement between police and advocates.

While ACT Policing did not respond to questions about how it was working to improve communication with people with disability, its submission to the inquiry listed improving “responses to vulnerable groups including … people with disability” as a key priority.

ACT Policing also said an official complaint relating to the man’s incident had not been made.

“The professional standards team is not aware of a complaint matching that described in the submission,” a spokesperson said.

“Anyone who wishes to raise a concern about their interactions with ACT Policing is encouraged to visit the AFP website.”

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