Study calls for training for police on identification of learning disability


The Prison Reform Trust work in 2008 suggested that people with learning disabilities in the UK faced ‘personal, systemic and routine’ discrimination from the point of arrest through to release from prison.

This Australian study looked at the experience of people in the state of Victoria. The researchers were interested in the experiences and perceptions of operational members of Victoria Police when they came into contact with people with learning disabilities. They looked at how frequently and in what context police reported coming into contact with people with learning disabilities, how they made the identification of learning disability and asked them to identify the challenges they might face at this time.

They worked with 229 operational police members who were attending mandatory firearms training sessions over a 2-week period in Melbourne, Australia.

They found that the police members they interviewed reported coming into contact with people they believed had a learning disability on a regular basis.

In relation to the identification of learning disability, respondents tended to base this on job-related experiences, using physical and behavioural cues to identify individuals. They reported the most common challenges at this time as communication with individuals and getting access to assistance and co-operation from specialist service providers.

The researchers asked about levels of confidence in dealing with people with learning disabilities, and some respondents considered themselves capable and confident in their interactions, but there were those who also identified a need for training who reported lower confidence in how to respond when they encountered people with learning disabilities.

The authors conclude that there is a need for training for police members to ensure they understand clearly the differences between mental illness and learning disabilities and to develop skills in appropriately identifying people with learning disabilities when they encounter them in their role. They also call for training on communication which should be scenario-based sessions involving an interdisciplinary approach.

Police encounters with people with intellectual disability: prevalence, characteristics and challenges, Henshaw, M. and Thomas, S. in Journal of Intellectual Disability Research, 56: 620–631.

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John Northfield

After qualifying as a social worker, John worked in community learning disability teams before getting involved in a number of long-stay hospital closure programmes, working to develop individual plans for people moving into their own homes. He worked for BILD, helping to develop the Quality Network and was editorial lead for the NHS electronic library learning disabilities specialist collection. This led him to found the Learning Disabilities Elf site with Andre Tomlin as a way of making the evidence accessible to practitioners in health and social care. Most recently he has worked as part of Mencap's national quality team and also been involved in a number of national website developments, including the General Medical Council's learning disabilities site.

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