A person with a disability was charged for stealing a Freddo Frog, while many more have been charged with sleeping rough and stealing food, according to a Royal Commission research report which finds the response of police to people with disabilities "deeply inadequate".
The report released by the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability lists a number of reasons, provided by disability advocates, for why people with disability commonly come into contact with police across Australia.
In addition to poverty crimes, this included assaulting doctors or nurses during a mental episode, breaching protection or other orders which the people with disabilities do not understand, or police using a person with disability as an informant who subsequently engages in criminal activity.
Evidence clearly indicates that the provision of appropriate support people is key to assisting people with disability who come into contact with the police to realise their fundamental right for access to justice.- Royal Commission research report: Police Responses to Disability
The report said that police awareness of disability was an issue, where police could not identify nor did they understand the impacts of disability, adding that police rarely provided people with disabilities with a support person.
It is not just alleged offenders with disabilities who are impacted, but also witnesses or victims of those with disabilities.
It said there was a lack of overall specialist disability liaison personnel across the nation, and scant detail about training for police in disability awareness and response.
The issue of a "pressing need" for independent oversight of the police when it came to violence against people with disability, perpetrated by police, was also raised.
"Evidence clearly indicates that the provision of appropriate support people is key to assisting people with disability who come into contact with the police to realise their fundamental right for access to justice," it said.
"Access to support persons remains dependant on improving and expanding police disability awareness."
"One advocate summed up what many communicated about the nature of police responses to people with disability...'It can be a case of I dont want to help, Im not going to help, I dont believe you have a disability, or I dont believe you deserve the help'."- Royal Commission Research Report
The report went on to note that disability advocates highlight "poor police capacity to differentiate borderline intellectual disability and acquired brain injury", and that "autism frequently confounded police who commonly refuse to accept that a person with autism who can communicate is impaired".
In summary it said that while good police practice existed, the system overall was not set up to respond adequately to people with disability.
"While some individual police demonstrate good practices and approaches, on a systemic basis police do not respond effectively to promote safety and protect people with disability who are victims, witnesses and alleged offenders," it said.
"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."
Disabilities may include congenital brain injuries, acquired brain injuries and other cognitive and intellectual impairments, Cerebral Palsy and hearing impairments, bipolar and psychosocial disability.
A Witness Intermediary Scheme Pilot in Tasmania for children and adults with communication needs
In Tasmania, a new pilot program the Witness Intermediary Scheme is aimed at addressing some of these issues, offering supports to children and adults with communication needs.
Four states and territories in Australia already adopt such a scheme, according to the report.
Under the pilot program in Tasmania, the intermediary support person is provided to eligible people when dealing with the police in matters of sexual assault and homicide.
This was discussed by Laurel House chief executive Kathryn Fordyce at a Royal Commission hearing last week.
Ms Fordyce said it was up to police to assess the need for an intermediary, but that ideally, it would be encouraged whenever it was possible for those with disabilities.
She said the program had been well received by her sector.
"This program provides support to assess the communication needs of [a] person, and makes recommendations to police and the legal system in relation to how to phrase questions, how to create conducive environments for that person to get the best evidence from them," she said.
"It does provide that additional support for something that is very stressful and traumatic, in terms of engaging with police and the legal system."
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