The man with Aspergers syndrome, who was charged with looting after the Christchurch Earthquake six months ago, has finally had the charges against him dropped by the police. I would like to say this was a reflection of an improved attitude and understanding on behalf of the police, who up to this point had persisted with what many have seen as an injustice. But it appears that such an optimistic view about a change in attitudes or increased understanding, may be premature.
First, a recap of the incident. Arie Smith-Voorkamp was charged with looting, in the emotionally charged aftermath of the Christchurch Earthquake. He had entered a badly damaged building, and attempted to steal two light-bulbs. He was driven towards this behaviour by obsessions related to his Aspergers. He was made the “face of looting,” and thereby an object of public hatred, before it was known that he had a relevant mental condition (though it has been suggested that the police knew there was something “wrong” with him at the time of arrest). He spent 11 days in custody after his arrest.
Despite judges suggesting three times that Arie be granted diversion, the police refused, claiming it went against their policies to do so. Six months later they dropped the charges. The crown prosecutor stating: “The police, having reviewed the matter, and the nature of the alleged offence, being at the lower end of the scale, and the potential penalty, and the fact that he has no previous convictions, seek leave to withdraw the charges against him.”
The police argument that it went against policy to grant Arie diversion, and that they had to wait this long before they had a psychological report to back dropping the charges, has been openly rubbished by Arie’s lawyer: Arie had originally plead guilty, as the police claim is required for diversion, back in March. An official psychological assessment was also made available back in May.
Now that the charges have been dropped, the police have introduced the claim that Arie and his friend were “affected by alcohol and potentially drugs at the time of the arrest.” Arie’s lawyer says his client has never taken drugs, and had only two glasses of wine on the night; he was not intoxicated. The stuttering and problems with communication that may have led the police to think he was, were results of extreme stress as documented in psychiatric reports. Why the police have found it necessary to introduce this unproven claim about drugs and alcohol, after the charges have been dropped, is unclear, and adds to a picture of something rather rotten about police attitudes throughout this ordeal.
In July, while waiting for Arie’s case to go before the court, “Sunday” ran a current affairs which openly discussed details of the case, and included interviews with Arie and the “victims” (who did not see themselves as victims and accepted Arie’s apology). After the documentary aired, the police launched an investigation into the current affairs show, leading to even more public outrage at the police’s conduct throughout this situation. A month later, the decision was reached not to charge the current affairs show.
The details and legal arguments surrounding the charges and the case against Arie, haven’t had the full airing they might have had they gone to court, and details continue to emerge even now that the charges have been dropped. But one thing appears clear; that from the time of arrest, to his custody and through-out this whole process, there appears to have been a lack of appreciation on behalf of the police, as to how autism can impact on a person in ways that are directly relevant to criminal activity and responsiblity.
Alison Molloy from Autism NZ says that Arie’s case is just “the tip of the iceberg“; that she has since received many reports about negative experiences had by autistic individuals with the New Zealand police. It must be pointed out that police are trained at the beginning and through-out their career, to identify and handle people with intellectual impairment, and that they are made familiar with relevant legislation such as the Mental Health Act. Also, the police insist that they followed procedure through-out Arie’s case. If this is the case though, clearly the problem is systemic, because what Arie was put through was un-necessary and remarkably cruel considering his mental condition. So what is going wrong here, does more need to be done than is currently done, and will things change?
Reading this report from the 5th of August, you’d be led to think the police were willing to up their awareness of autism in ways relevant to their policing tasks. (If you are interested in more detail on how autism is relevant to interactions with the police, and consequences of bad interactions, I have written previous posts on such issues: “Autism in Prisons” and “Autism and the Law.”) But this report out today gives a different impression: That the New Zealand police attitude is that more training and awareness about autism is not necessary. That expecting such a thing of police lifts them more into the role of judge and jury; it is up to the court to make determinations about responsibility and mental assessments.
Considering the current problems around police dealing with autistic individuals, and that higher awareness can impact on police duties in a wide variety of ways (including deciding whether to press charges, allow diversion, and other tasks such as taking statements, dealing with witnesses and understanding questionable behaviours at the scene of a crime), it seems to me a bad call to shift all responsibility to the courts. Furthermore, police are expected to use judgment; not every situation belongs before the courts. Surely – considering the high levels of psychological damage that can result from not responding to a situation involving an autistic person appropriately – the police should be keen to investigate their current practices, particularly in light of Arie’s case.
What goes wrong when autism is not taken into account, are the sorts of stories that scare parents like myself, and make us fearful for the future of our children (as if we didn’t have enough to worry about with our special needs children). A local well-known example is that of the autistic man accused of rape, where it appears that the police were absolutely determined to hold the wrong man to account, resulting is some highly questionable practices that had consequences for the police involved. There are a number of even scarier high-profile international stories too, such as the autistic man un-necessarily shot by police, and autistic children taken from their parents, based on misunderstandings of autism by those with the power to act under the law.
Raising awareness and changing police behaviour to better match the population they are working with, is surely not asking too much (here’s a great piece written by and for emergency personnel overseas, which attempts to do so and does it well). At the very least, there needs to be the impression that the police are interested in understanding such relevant circumstances, but that impression is not forth-coming. I don’t expect police to know every single mental condition they might interact with, but I expect them to care, and not to appear to be acting on some sort of vendetta when autistic people are involved. (It is not at all hard to see why police might form excessively negative views towards autistic people, because they rub police instincts the wrong way by behaviours such as avoiding eye contact and serious communication problems which get in the way of police investigations; those are just two of many examples showing why animosity may arise.) Autistic people are particularly vulnerable, and their disabilities particularly invisible, in ways that lead people to think they’re just misbehaving, or affected by drugs, or guilty, when really they are law-abiding citizens doing their best to fit in with society.
Autistic people can and do commit crimes; I’m not saying they don’t. But even when they have done so, their autism must be taken into account to make sure their rights are protected and properly exercised, and that the punishment they suffer as a consequence of their crimes, is not hugely disproportionate considering their mental state.
“Those with developmental disabilities are seven times more likely to have confrontations with law enforcement” according to overseas statistics, so issues like these can’t be swept under the rug. They will keep coming up.
I am glad Arie’s case brought these issues to light, though he shouldn’t have had to pay that price. I am sad that the light thus shined hasn’t led to an improvement in police attitudes towards autistic individuals. And I am hopeful that will change; that police will come to appreciate that better understanding autism will make their jobs easier and avoid a lot of un-necessary suffering by an already vulnerable population. A population that needs their protection too.