A severely autistic and epileptic teenager who was pulled out of a swimming pool and restrained after he jumped in fully clothed during a school trip has won £28,250 damages from the Metropolitan Police.
The 19-year-old, who can only be identified as ZH, had established his claim for trespass to the person, assault and battery and false imprisonment under the Disability Discrimination Act and the Human Rights Act, ruled the judge, Sir Robert Nelson, at London's High Court.
He said that, although the officers attending the September 2008 incident in Acton, west London, were acting as they genuinely thought best, their responses were "over-hasty and ill-informed".
Matters escalated to the point where a "wholly inappropriate" restraint of ZH, who has learning disabilities and cannot communicate by speech, took place.
By failing to consult his carers, the police failed to understand the potentially serious consequences of applying force and restraint to ZH, who suffered moderate post-traumatic stress disorder.
He said: "The case highlights the need for there to be an awareness of the disability of autism within the public services. It is to be hoped that this sad case will help bring that about."
He refused permission to appeal although counsel for the Met Commissioner said the application would be pursued directly with the Court of Appeal.
In his ruling, the judge said that the case was another example of the difficult role the police were often called upon to play.
"None of them were fully aware of the features of autism, what problems it presented and how it should best be dealt with in a situation such as occurred at the Acton swimming baths.
"They were called to the scene by a misleading message about ZH's behaviour, and on arrival perceived the need to take control and be seen to be taking steps to deal with the situation.
"What was called for was for one officer to take charge and inform herself of the situation, as fully as the circumstances permitted, so as to be able to decide on the best course of action to take. That did not happen."
He said that, while clear that the case against the police was established, he was equally clear that no one involved was at any time acting in an ill-intentioned way towards a disabled person.
After the judgment was given, the Met's counsel Anne Studd argued that its effect was to "lessen the overriding police duty to preserve life and limb".
"These are very difficult issues for the emergency services, including the police, to deal with and, in my submission, they should be given a margin in which they can act without their actions being found to be unlawful."
The judge said that the police had to assess each situation as they found it on its merits and deal with it accordingly.
"There is no standard here as to what may happen in each case. It is inevitably a decision on its own facts, and exceptionally unusual facts they are."
The judge said that ZH was at the pool for a familiarisation visit with four other pupils from his school.
It was not intended that any of them would swim or be close to the poolside, but ZH broke away from the group and became fixated by the water, despite attempts to distract him.
When the police arrived, they perceived it as a "life and death situation" as ZH, who could not swim but had no fear of the water nor indeed any knowledge of its danger, could have fallen in and drowned.
When ZH moved closer to the pool, two officers took hold of his jacket as he began to gather momentum, but he was much too big and strong and ended up in the water, which was chest-deep.
ZH was moved to the shallow end and lifted out by lifeguards, with two police officers taking hold of his arms before handcuffs and leg restraints were applied.
Soaking wet, agitated and distressed, he was placed alone in a cage in the rear of a police van until calmed by carers and allowed to leave with them.
The judge said the presence of two uniformed police officers coming up towards him and standing close was probably in itself sufficient to cause ZH to jump in.
Rather than giving ZH the opportunity to leave the shallow end by himself, the police formulated their own plan to remove him and the inevitability of restraint when he predictably struggled as he was manhandled out of the pool was clear to foresee.
Once ZH was out of the water, the police were simply caught up in a process which they had started, continued to be involved in and felt unable to stop or control.
He said: "The duty to consult the carers arose from the outset, and the duty to make reasonable adjustments was a continuing obligation throughout."
ZH brought his action through his father, GH, who told the court that, after the incident, he changed from a "loveable little kid into an upset child", who did not want to bathe, shower or go into water.
He was very stressed, lost interest in everything and did not want to leave home, while his seizures also increased.
Afterwards, GH said in a statement: "I hope this judgment means that disabled people can expect to receive more humane treatment from Metropolitan Police officers than my son did."
Jane Vaughan, director of education at the National Autistic Society (NAS), said: "This judgment confirms that in this case the police lacked the understanding and flexibility needed to adapt to a person's autism and subjected a vulnerable young person to inhuman and degrading treatment.
"Autism training is not routinely provided as part of police training in the UK despite the fact that the condition affects one in 100 people.
"'People with disabilities look to the police to protect them and it's vital that their needs and behaviours are understood and accounted for.
"Autism training should be standard in officer training to ensure that policemen and women understand the needs of this section of society, thereby ensuring that disturbing cases like this never happen again."
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