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Autism: Police discretion and decision making in an uncertain environment

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A question that always strikes when discussing my dissertation topic is why did I chose that particular area to research – is it a topic that I was passionate about, or was it my personal life experience that lead me into that field? The answer to these questions is quite simply, no. In fact, it was a topic I accidentally fell into after reading existing research on the area for one of my other modules in second year. Intellectual disabilities within the Criminal Justice System are quite often misunderstood, and as with all academics, the more I read the more questions I had. Taking this topic at face value, the field is extremely vast, therefore after taking some time to digest many angles of research I narrowed my topic down into two areas. Firstly, an institution that I have always been interested in, policing, and one intellectual disability in particular, autism (ASD).

To give you a brief background; the examination of the relationship between criminal offending and intellectual impairments is proved as complex and problematic. This is due to the issues associated with the definition of intellectual disability, as well as the contribution of unreported crime which means researchers can only examine individuals who are currently involved in the criminal justice process (Talbot, 2007). From a policing perspective, these complexities and concerns increase in terms of conflicting procedures and relevant training which can later impact levels of service and effective results (Mercier, 2011). Amongst academic literature, it is evident that contemporary policing institutions are subject to increasing budget cuts which means that police staff must exercise discretion in processing large amounts of work with inadequate resources, in which shortcuts and simplifications are made (Lipsky 2010; Loftus 2012). This is highly problematic as policies have a tendency to occupy a one size fits all approach. In effect, this becomes increasingly difficult when dealing with individuals with autism, as increased support and time is needed to sufficiently deal with vulnerable groups.

In terms of Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD), this is a common form of learning impairment which can affect patterns of behaviour within a social setting. Autism is characterised by a triad of impairments, which includes difficulties in social interactions, communication and repetitiveness in daily activities (Roth, 2010, p.6). The varying expression and severity of these characteristics means that autism is recognised into sub-types, and therefore, is also considered as a spectrum disorder (King and Murphy, 2014).

On the occasions that an individual with ASD comes into contact with the police and wider criminal justice services, it is normally a result of their social and communication skills being misunderstood which means that they are not given the appropriate support (Cockram, 2005; Tucker et al, 2008). Research suggests that autistic individuals are likely to become extremely distressed in unfamiliar, confusing and loud situations whereby their actions and behaviour can be easily misinterpreted and subsequent actions could escalate the situation (Hayes, 2007). Complimented by the current implications previously discussed that are faced by the police and wider services, it is no surprise that there are issues and concerns surrounding police responses and decision-making processes towards the ASD community. After personally interviewing police constables and custody officers from Northamptonshire Police to investigate the initial responses when dealing with such individuals; the realities of such dilemmas were highlighted.

After now completing my studies with First Class Honours, I am now fortunate enough to work for The Appropriate Adult Service (TAAS) where such theoretical standpoints are often presented to me in a practical environment. From a personal judgement, Appropriate Adults can be easily dismissed, but just being a friendly face who can help and support a vulnerable person within a custody setting is far more rewarding than meets the eye. In fact, it is my dissertation itself that has lead me into this career and has now also given me a thirst for further study in my chosen research area.

References

Lipsky, M. (2010) Street- Level Bureaucracy: Dilemmas of the Individual in Public Services. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.  

Loftus, B. (2012) Police culture in a changing world. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mercier, C. (2011) The first critical steps through the criminal justice system for persons with intellectual disabilities. British Journal of Learning Disabilities. 39(2), pp.130-138.

Roth, L. (2010) Autism: an evolving concept. In: Roth, L. (ed.) The Autism Spectrum in the 21st Century: Exploring Psychology, Biology and Practice. 1st ed. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, pp.1-29.

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