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The Force is excessive: New report says police unfit to handle disability

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Central to improving police responses to disadvantaged people with disability is recognition that what members of this group require is not a police or criminal justice response. It is rather, a trauma-informed, culturally safe, community-based and holistic social service response.

– DRC Research Report: Police responses to people with disability

The report published by the Disability Royal Commission this week laid bare serious and widespread problems with the way police treat people with disability. The authors were very clear about where these problems come from and how to fix them. These ideas have been around for a long time, but they are politically unpopular. Nevertheless, it’s important to face them head-on if we want anything to change.

These are the two most important factors the researchers found:

  • “The increasing expansion of policing and the related use of policing as the default institutional response” to issues for which “police are not the appropriate responders”
  • Funding cuts to the “appropriate social and human services” that can respond to those issues in better ways.

In other words, we don’t just need more disability training for police. We need less police for people with disability. In fact, we need less police for everyone. We need to stop using the blunt instrument of police to address complicated social problems, and we need to bring back and increase funding for the people who are actually best placed to unravel those problems.

For example, we need more access to diagnosis and disability support for the people whose conditions affect their behaviour – especially First Nations, low income, rural and regional, or culturally and linguistically diverse people, who we already know are under-diagnosed and under-supported. We need to get kids with disability the support they need to avoid contact with the criminal justice system at an early age. We need to #RaiseTheAge, too, and not just to 14.

We particularly need lots of well-resourced options for someone to call when they are concerned about the welfare of a person with disability or otherwise, so their first thought isn’t the people whose “default position is use of force.” When you call 000 for a physical injury, they send experts in stabilising physical injuries and getting you to a doctor. When you call 000 because someone is having a mental health crisis, shouldn’t they send experts in stabilising your mental and emotional condition and getting you access to mental health treatment?

The solution is not to make police become those experts – that’s like giving firefighters veterinary training just because they sometimes rescue cats. Just train the police in how and when to step aside and let someone more suitable handle a situation, and make sure someone more suitable is actually available. It really is that simple.

More information

See our Criminal Justice hearings issue page for more about the Royal Commission’s investigations and links to blog posts about these issues by people with disability.

Here’s the list from the report summary of things we need to stop police from hurting people with disability:

  • increased resourcing to a range of social services such as housing, health and disability-related supports;
  • the expansion of programs such as the Justice Advocacy Service and a related legal mandate for police to use support persons;
  • the pressing need for much greater independent oversight of the police in order to hold police accountable for violence perpetrated by police against people with disability;
  • the development of diversionary options such as the Cognitive Impairment Diversion Program, and the decolonising of diversion;
  • investing in First Nations-led self-determined local community driven initiatives;
  • the documentation and expansion of progressive models of policing; and the introduction of successful initiatives such as CAHOOTS that invest in programs that provide alternative first responders to police that are well-equipped to respond to the needs of people with disability
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People with Disability Australia

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