Tackling hate crimes is a responsibility for us all
Posted Friday 23 October 2009
The tragic case of Fiona Pilkington highlights what a mountain we still have to climb to tackle crime, harassment and victimisation against disabled people. Following seven years of abuse at the hands of a local gang, Ms Pilkington set fire to her car while she and her disabled daughter were inside.
At the inquest, the jury found that she killed herself and her daughter due to stress and anxiety about her daughter's future, and the ongoing abuse they were experiencing. The jury foreman said the police's response had an impact on Ms Pilkington's actions, and records show that she had contacted the police on more than 30 occasions, but no one had ever been prosecuted.
In a similar case, one woman recently told Mind of the daily harassment she and her son face, which started when their neighbours found out about her family history of mental distress. Like Fiona Pilkington, she has reported the crimes against her to the police on a number of occasions, but no action has been taken. She and her son continue to live in the shadow of constant abuse, with no expectation of it going away.
To me, the Pilkington case is a clear example of disability hate crime, and many others agree. Courts have a duty to treat these crimes more seriously and increase the sentence for any offence where there is evidence of hostility based on disability.
The Home Secretary, Alan Johnson, is quite right to criticise the "ludicrous" attitude expressed by one police officer at the Pilkington case inquest, that anti-social behaviour is "no longer a police matter". Anti-social behaviour can be a serious threat to all of us and it should not be left to local councils to deal with. The police must take lessons from this about the importance of responding promptly and effectively when people report "low level" incidents.
But in characterising what happened to the Pilkingtons as merely "antisocial behaviour", Alan Johnson implied that these are not serious crimes. And it is not right to place the blame in allowing the harassment to continue solely with the police. Ms Pilkington was known to the police and to social services, but many people also knew of the crimes. In our communities, we all need to take responsibility for the people around us, and be prepared to speak out against crimes and offer support to the victims.
Mind will be sharing good police practice from around the country, to ensure police responses to so-called "low level" incidents improve and everyone is granted their fundamental right to equal access to justice.
But equally, we need to improve community relations, dispel myths about mental health and disability, and challenge the "just ignore the abuse and the perpetrators will get bored" attitudes that still exist, and suggest disabled people should expect to encounter victimisation and deal with it as part of their condition.
Amy Whitelock, Policy and Campaigns Officer
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