Police in London have launched an autism card program aimed at improving interactions between officers and people with autism.
The cards will be distributed to people with autism and will alert police to the possibility that the person struggles with communication or could display unpredictable behavior, the Metropolitan Police said.
The announcement comes at the end of a week that has seen the force accused of heavy-handedness. On Thursday, the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) watchdog said it had launched an investigation after footage went viral appearing to show officers in east London forcibly restraining a man while he was having a seizure.
The autism cards will be handed out via autism partnership boards and police throughout the UK capital, Scotland Yard said, and will provide information about how the condition manifests itself as well as personal information about the cardholder.
Police said they had produced the cards after consultations with charities and other agencies that work with autistic people.
Autism is a developmental disability that can cause social, communication and behavioral challenges. There are about 700,000 people on the autism spectrum in the UK, according to the National Autistic Society (NAS).
“Having an encounter with police – whether as a victim, someone officers are concerned for the welfare of, or as a suspect – is an unsettling encounter for anybody, but for someone with autism, it can be extremely distressing,” Detective Superintendent Helen Lyons, the Met’s lead responsible officer for Adults Neglected, Vulnerable and Abused, said in a statement.
“It could be the confrontation with a stranger, or the idea of physical contact that triggers an adverse, nervous reaction in that person and potentially escalate the situation,” she added. “Officers currently have no way of knowing whether someone has autism, a condition which may explain their behaviour.
“We’ve heard awful stories of anxious behaviour being misinterpreted by emergency services and situations escalating quickly,” Clare Hughes, Criminal Justice Manager at the NAS, said.
“Up until now, officers have had no way of knowing whether someone is autistic,” Hughes said, adding that the cards “should allow officers to adapt their communication or actions, so they can make sure they treat autistic people appropriately and with respect.”
The incident in Tower Hamlets, east London, which happened on Tuesday, prompted criticism on social media and sparked a debate about interactions between police and people with physical or learning disabilities.
In the video, a woman can be heard shouting “he’s dying” and “he can’t breathe” while police pin down a suspect.
“This event has already provoked a fierce debate on social media and in the national media based on what has been captured in various recordings leading up to and during the arrest,” IOPC regional director Sal Naseem said in a statement announcing the investigation.
“It is important that we gather all available evidence as part of an independent investigation to establish the facts. I would urge anybody who witnessed the incident to contact us,” Naseem added.