News and Comment

Stop trivialising the experience of disability hate crime: Lessons from the Pilkington tragedy

Wednesday 25 May 2011


The Independent Police Complaints Commission’s (IPCC) findings

On 24 May, the IPCC outlined a catalogue of problems relating to the handling of the case involving the tragic deaths of Fiona Pilkington and her daughter Francecca Hardwick. Until police forces respond effectively to disability hate crime, efforts at encouraging better reporting will come to nothing. Without better reporting, the coalition government’s commitment to ‘promote better recording of hate crimes against disabled…people’ will flounder.

Trivialising the impact of experiences and negative stereotyping of disabled people

Our previous work for the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) identified a number of dimensions to the lack of effective police response.

First, the police may not think that the incidents reported are serious enough to warrant action. Certainly, the serious case review following the Pilkington tragedy and the IPCC findings confirm that despite numerous attempts at reporting, the police and the council failed to respond as ‘there was no indication…that this was anything other than low level nuisance behaviour’. The description of incidents being ‘low level’ trivialises the impact they had on Fiona Pilkington and her family. It overlooks the fact that the persistent and corrosive effect of prolonged exposure to these so-called ‘low level nuisance’ can be devastating.

Second, stereotypes about disabled people can also lead to negative police behaviours. There is evidence that disabled people have been termed ‘nuisance callers’ as a result of making numerous phone calls to report incidents.

Third, there is evidence that the police can doubt the credibility of disabled victims of hate crime. The Joint Committee on Human Rights found that negative assumptions around disabled people’s ability to provide credible accounts mean that the police may not pursue cases. The High Court, for example, ruled in 2009 that the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) were wrong to drop a prosecution of a case involving a victim with mental health conditions because the CPS believed that the victim would not be a credible witness.

Not just a policing issue

While the IPCC’s findings usefully draw attention to police failings in tackling disability hate crime, effective response requires far more than police action. The criminal justice focus has meant that the critical role played by other individuals and organisations has been overlooked.

Our work for the EHRC and for Mencap (to be published in June) found that ‘reporting’ can often occur through informal conversations with support workers, teachers, healthcare professionals or housing officers. Unfortunately, such ‘reports’ do not get passed onto the police. The case review into the death of Steven Hoskin stated that:

‘What is striking about the responses of services to Steven’s circumstances is that each agency focused on single issues within their own remits and did not make the connections deemed necessary…’

The lack of joined-up working and information sharing has similarly been noted by the IPCC in relation to the Pilkington tragedy. It is vital for key agencies working with disabled people to understand their role in helping to tackle hate crime, and to develop effective partnerships to ensure that intelligence is shared.

A victim-centred approach

It is useful to reiterate the definition of hate crime as there is still widespread misunderstanding about what it is, with negative implications as a result. The CPS states that:

‘When prosecuting cases of disability hate crime, to help us apply our policy on dealing with such cases, we adopt the following definition: ‘Any criminal offence, which is perceived, by the victim or any other person, to be motivated by hostility or prejudice based on a person’s disability or perceived disability’.’

The definition of hate crime is victim-centred. This shifts the power to identify ‘what happened’ from criminal justice agencies to victims and witnesses. This should shape how police forces prioritise and respond to hate crime and how they respond to victims and witnesses generally.

OPM  have produced an animated video to help raise awareness of the corrosive impact of ongoing, so-called ‘low level’, incidents against disabled people, available here.