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The Bristol Cable

Autistic woman wins damages after police put ‘false and misleading’ information on her record

In the latest in a series of payouts from the force, Avon and Somerset Police were found to hold records incorrectly describing her as having ‘split personality, violent when not medicated’.

Ilustration: Sophia Checkley

Reports

An autistic woman has received a £5,500 payout from Avon and Somerset Police after they held “false and misleading” information about her on police records for years. 

Emma*, who spoke to the Cable on condition of anonymity, made a subject access request in 2019. She was shocked to discover that police records featured incorrect information about her, including a fictitious diagnosis of ‘split personality, violent when not medicated’ and false claims about her health and personal life. 

Only after seeking legal help has she received the financial settlement and the references in question have been removed.

This is only the latest in a series of issues that Emma has faced with the force. Last year, the Cable reported that Avon and Somerset Police (ASP) had failed in its duty to provide her with an appropriate adult while she was in custody. 

She described the experience as “like hell” and “terrifying”. This came just after she was so distressed that she tried to take her own life at Bridgwater Police Station in 2020.

In February 2021, the force paid out £7,000 in compensation to her because officers broke data protection laws by using a video of her in distress for training purposes without her full permission.

Emma, who lives in Weston-super-Mare, is autistic and also has Tourettes. She previously told the Cable she had been the victim of hate crimes for years, which wasn’t dealt with by the police. She said her neighbour harasses her, calls her slurs such as ‘spastic’ and ‘retard’ and has made false accusations to the police against her.

Regarding her most recent complaint, she told the Cable: “I was completely horrified when I saw the information on the police records. I was very conscious that the police would be using this data when interacting with me, so wanted to ensure that it was correct as some elements were just completely untrue. 

“It was a very stressful time, particularly with this coming so soon after my previous case. Securing the settlement is great news, but my only hope is that no one else has to face such problems and that lessons are learnt by the police. These issues cannot be allowed to happen again.

“I strongly recommend that anyone who has ever had any contact with police, whether as a victim, witness or offender, checks what information police hold about them.” 

Her lawyer James Kelliher, associate at Hayes Connor, said: “Our client has endured an incredibly difficult few years and it is very worrying that she has now faced several different data issues linked to ASP.

“Organisations have a responsibility to ensure that the information they hold on individuals is accurate – and this is particularly important when it comes to police records. Our client was understandably upset when she saw this information and we were committed to helping her every step of the way.

“While nothing will change what has happened, we hope that the settlement will help her look more positively to the future. It is also vital that these issues are not repeated. We would urge police forces up and down the country to ensure they follow best practice when it comes to data.”

ASP has come under fire in recent years for how it supports autistic people and those with learning disabilities. An independent report criticised a series of “shocking” failings in this area across different local institutions, and the report’s author made a number of recommendations, including establishing a charter to help people understand what rights they have and make sure local services respect them.

But the force has defended its work developing ways of interacting with vulnerable adults, which is being shaped by its autism lead, Adam O’Loughlin, who is autistic himself. This included delivering training for staff in collaboration with local experts and introducing a standard operating procedure to make sure autistic people are accompanied by an appropriate adult. 

In September 2021, the IOPC ordered ASP to reinvestigate the complaint about false information on her record, because it hadn’t been investigated adequately, but this remains unresolved. 

A spokesperson for Avon and Somerset Police said: “We can confirm that we have settled a claim to cover damages and legal costs, without accepting legal liability, following a complaint to the Information Commissioner. We’re unable to comment further as the complaint is not yet finalised.”

Emma said the force has also voluntarily referred a separate complaint to the IOPC for the failure to investigate hate crime.

“I want to make people aware of these issues and to raise awareness,” she said. “Despite the police saying they are making changes, nothing ever does.”

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