The National Police Autism Association (NPAA) was founded in 2015 to provide autism support to police officers, staff and the community. Our external-facing work was prompted by a need to provide all police officers with autism awareness training and to share best practice – at the time those Forces which provided training tended to include it as part of a larger input on mental illness, which was not ideal. The NPAA has played a part in raising awareness of autism as a condition that all police officers will come across during their career – although there is still work to be done, we are pleased to see that many Forces now train officers to recognise autism traits and to achieve best evidence when working with autistic victims, witnesses and suspects.
One issue we have highlighted concerns the provision of appropriate adults for autistic detainees in police custody. It is all too easy for autism to be overlooked during the booking-in process, which can lead to an autistic person being interviewed without the support of an appropriate adult. The recent changes to the PACE Codes of Practice have gone some way to remedying the situation, with an appropriate adult now being mandated for anyone who may find it difficult to understand the significance of questions or information. Although autism is not explicitly mentioned, it clearly falls within the expanded definition provided in the code for ‘vulnerable adult’, which replaces the previous outdated terms ‘mentally disordered’ and ‘mentally vulnerable’ – with the appropriate training in place for custody staff, we are confident that autistic suspects will be better protected under the new legislation. We are also pleased to see that Avon & Somerset Constabulary have gone further and implemented a policy of all autistic suspects being provided with an AA in Custody, regardless of how their condition affects them – an excellent example of best practice that we would like to see adopted by all Forces.
The NPAA has also championed autism awareness for investigators – an important consideration for achieving best evidence given that many autistic people would struggle with being interviewed under caution, particularly in a police custody suite and even with the right support in place. The acknowledged experts in this field are investigators with the National Crime Agency, who have found that autistic people make up a significant proportion of those being interviewed for computer fraud and terrorism offences. In addition to keeping questions unambiguous and avoiding leading the suspect to a particular answer, NCA interviewers typically keep interviews to a maximum of 30 mins due to the high co-morbidity of ADHD in autistic suspects. Excellent resources are available for investigators, two examples being the National Autistic Society’s Guide for Police Officers and Staff, and The Advocate’s Gateway website hosted by The Inns of Court College of Advocacy. These and other materials are discussed on NPAA’s Police Neurodiversity Forum, a unique (and free) web resource available to police personnel and anyone working in autism support fields and academia.
The NPAA is committed to ensuring that everyone coming into contact with the police and criminal justice system is treated with dignity and fairness. With over 1,000 members representing personal, family and professional interests in autism and other neurodiverse conditions, we are ideally placed to achieving this aim. For more information, visit our websitewww.npaa.org.uk and follow us on Twitter at @npaa_uk .
John Nelson | Chair | National Police Autism Association