A Brush with Authority

Podcast Episode 04. Hear a former police officer talk about how to deal with authority in a more positive way.

Ian is an ex-police officer who dealt with incidents where young people with additional needs were involved.  He saw how a lack of understanding on both sides could often turn difficult situations into highly stressful experiences for everyone.
Sometimes figures of authority lack experience in dealing with people with additional needs.  Similarly, people with additional needs lack experience dealing with people in authority.  This can be a huge problem in testing situations, when tensions are high.
The answer, according to Ian, is education on both sides.  He talks about how important it is for a young person or their parents/carers to explain why they are behaving in a particular way.  He provides advice on how to get rid of the unease, and sometimes even fear, that young people with additional needs have of anyone in authority.  Ian also gives tactics you can use to make future encounters with anyone in authority a positive experience for everyone.
Ian speaks from experience.  He was a police officer of 34 years of standing and has experience with the UK Border Agency.  He is also a parent to a child with additional needs.  He reminds us that if our young people need help in the future, it might well be the police they turn to.  If they fear the police, then their request for help might not be received quite so well

Show Notes
[.45] – About Ian and his experience as a police officer
[1.30] – Need for parents to understand there is often a lack of training
[3.30] – Make sure explain to the police officer the needs of the individual
[6.30] – Encourage children to be proactive with police officers and approach them
[8.20] – Essential skill is to develop confidence in dealing with authority
[10.30] – How to manage an airport encounter or similar stressful situation
[12.30] – Try to reduce the stress by increasing familiarity with authority
[16.15] – Not all encounters need to end badly
[16.45] – Explain but don’t apologise
[19.15] – Talk to young people about dealing with authority and how they should expect to be treated but also how they should treat the authorities

Key Takeaways
Take the time to explain to the person in authority what the issues are
Be proactive and find ways to engage with authority figures and make them more familiar to young people with additional needs

Show Full Transcript
Podcast Transcript
DERBA: This week we’re talking to Ian who’s a parent of a young man with additional needs but he’s also an ex-police officer in the UK. So what we’re going to talk about this week is his experiences of how people with additional needs deal with authority and some of the issues that might arise that he’s seen as an ex-police officer. Welcome, Ian.

IAN: Thank you. As you said, I’m an ex-policeman. I did 34 years in the police force before I retired and then went to work with the Border Agency down at Campbelltown airport. I was fairly fortunate in my career in so much I’d already had some involvement with children with special needs when I was at school. The school that I went to as a primary school within its own grounds had a unit that had children with special needs and so they weren’t something that was new or strange to me when I went into the police force.

That’s not the case for the majority of policeman. The first time a placement encounters a child with special needs regardless of what those special needs are. Could be the only time that he ever gets to deal with somebody in that way and there is no training that’s given to police officers during their probationary period or throughout their careers that will enable them to deal appropriately with children that have additional issues, whether it be a carer issue, whether it be an emotional issue or whether it be an issue that they’ve come across a police officer as a result of them finding themselves into trouble or being in trouble themselves.

So I had a fairly sort of fortunate start to it but I think more than anything else, it’s quite important for parents of children with special needs to recognize the fact that the police officer’s aren’t trained. They are just like you and I that had no involvement with children that need extra help and what I found most useful certainly with my colleagues was my ability to explain to them “Hang on a minute, take a step back, this kid needs a little more thought and care and attention than perhaps the ordinary person that you would deal with on the street”.

Now whether that be in a confrontational issue or whether it be an issue where it simply the fact that a mom and dad have walked down the high street, seen the policemen and thought “I’m going to introduce this, my son/my daughter” and it is fairly difficult for the policeman to know how to act appropriately under those circumstances.

I dealt with a number of issues in my early career where children with special educational needs had full and fell of the law as a result of being influenced by other people, being influenced by their siblings that were perhaps able bodied and just wanted to see where they could take their brother or their sister and see how much fun they can have getting them into trouble.

It is of a mine field and in this day and age, with the need for accountability, there’s lots of people that are very quickly on their police or authorities backs “Well you haven’t dealt with that properly and that’s not the right way of dealing with it and you should have known better.” So piece of advice is that if you are a parent and you’ve got a child with some form of special educational needs or whether they got a disability that may or may not be evident on the outside, take the time to explain to the police officer that “This is my Matt. This is Steve. This is Jenny and she has learning difficulties” so when you talk to her, she would listen to everything that you say and she would take things literally or she will she might will fly off the handle like you because of something that you’ve said. She’s clearly going to be influenced or he’s clearly gonna be influenced by you standing there in uniform and some being somebody that they’ve not necessarily had dealings with before.

Occasions did in my career when I’ve had to deal with children that got needs have been varied; children that are on the autistic spectrum that are reacting in a particular way and we’ve been called to them because of their actions and I’ve had some form of interaction with another member of the public and the member the public, this cold place because this person, as far as they’re concerned, is causing trouble. It was quite commonplace; shops in particular when you’re working on a bate that covers shopping centers. Then these children want to go out and they want to experience normal life but sometimes because of the way they are, they are seen to be acting in an abnormal way and I think it’s very fairly important that certainly if there’s somebody with them that is responsible for their care to explain to the police officer or explain to the person in authority that “Actually, they’re not being naughty. That’s just the way they are, and they can’t help it and they do need the extra time and extra space”.

I was at the airport just recently working on the checking people coming in, checking their passports. An American lad came through, clearly somewhere on the autistic spectrum and his mom apologized for him being naughty. And I said, “He’s not being naughty, that’s him, don’t apologize.” Explain. If you feel that you need to explain why your son or your daughter is being that way, talk to the person that you’re dealing with. Tell them what the issue is but most of us understand albeit not all of us deal with it in the right way.

DEBRA: Why do you think people don’t say anything then?

IAN: I think sometimes people are ashamed. I think sometimes people just want to get that interaction over and done with and move on so that they can cocoon their child in their own little world, keeping them safe. And I can understand that. That there are times with Matt when you think “Are you cringe?” At some of the things that child says or does. The children have got to experience, they’ve got to have life experiences because once they step out into the independent world, you’re not going to be there to protect them. I think for the majority, it’s a fear of the authority that they’re facing which is why people feel the need to sort of cocoon their children, take them away, move them on. They’re afraid of what their child might do or say.

DEBRA: So in terms of that, what could young people do, what could we say to them, what can parents teach the young person when they’re dealing with someone in authority?

IAN: Certainly for us and I’m fairly fortunate that I can look at this from both aspects; both from the person in authority to a greater or lesser degree and as a dad. I think the parents should encourage the child to be proactive to experience these encounters. We do it with Matthew in Central London. We were in Central London not so long ago. We were out, we were going to a show and there were two policemen riding down the road in Charing Cross on horses. And I said to him, “Go and talk to them. Go and say hello. Ask them ‘Can I stride your horse?’ It’s the same with the dog handlers.”

Children with special education needs interact famously with animals. It’s incredible to watch far, far better than somebody like you and I. It’s almost as if the animal understands better than the human that they’re interacting with. The dog would understand better than the dog handler that actually this child is special. There’s something different about this child and I’ll treat that child differently. My own dog does it. When we’re out and about, he treats young children, children with special educational needs or handicaps of any sort, completely different the way that he treats (and it’s a wrong way to say it) an able bodied child. I’m not suggesting for one second that are our kids are unable bodied, but they have additional needs.

DEBRA: So you’re suggesting, take away the fear of authority?

IAN: Absolutely.

DEBRA: But as they get older, what can we say to them to help them deal with those situations? Because what I get in what you’re saying is as parents, we can say to police officer or someone in authority but we know this has happened but this is the reason why she’s behaved or he’s behaved in this way. And we can explain it to them and the police officer will listen to us. What about for young person who gets themselves into a situation, can they explain to a police officer that “I’ve got additional needs”?

IAN: Yes, absolutely. It would save a whole world of difficulties if the young person feels confident enough to actually explain why they are in the way that they are. Children with different forms of epilepsy, children that have a tick, adults that tick. Sometimes, that might be the first time that the police officers dealt with it. I worked with the policeman that I think he would bark (bless him) and you could see the reactions of some of the people that he encountered. Now some of them were professionals, some of them will magistrate. He was given evidence in the magistrate school and suddenly he would bark as a result of his difficulties. And they would take a backseat. They would want for him to finish, to compose himself, he would then apologize for what he’s just done wrongly.

In my opinion, it’s not his fault and then he would move on. Certainly for the children or that the young person that have difficulties, take time to explain to the police officer. And I think, the earlier that you and now you pull that child as a child to do that, the more confidence they are likely to have to explain away their difficulties. Understanding of course that the policemen or border force officers or anybody in authority are human beings and they have good days and they have bad days. Some of them are very receptive and very understanding of people’s additional needs and some of them aren’t. And you can’t legislate for that. They’re part of the human race. But I think if the person with the additional needs gives them an opportunity to understand their perspective, where they’re coming from, the chances of that encounter being successful and beneficial to both parties are greatly enhanced.

DEBRA: So the example that you talked about at the airport, the parent apologized, what would you think she should have done?

IAN: My personal opinion as far as that sort of thing is concerned, and we do it with Matt, we would bring him forward. Give him the opportunity to meet the person in authority. Most of us that have got experience of dealing with children or people with additional needs, have developed strategies to engage them so it might be something where I brought him round to the other side of the counter and I showed him what the computer rate when I put his passport into the machine and I was able to amplify the photograph, I was able to change it to infrared pictures so that we could see all of the safety features involved in it. We’ve got a fingerprint machine there so I got him to come forward and put his fingers on the fingerprint so that when I capture the fingerprint, he could see what he’s fingerprint looked like on the screen.

Without my previous knowledge, without my background, I would probably not done that and without the opportunity to be able to do that where the parent could have brought the child forward, that opportunity would have been missed. And somebody that was sat beside me said, “That was fantastic. That kid was changed.” It is a child and exactly the same way as every other child, they have interests, they have things that float their boat.

Sometimes, you never ever going to get to be able to do that because whatever their episode is that they’re having at the time, you’re just not going to break through but hopefully there are some that you will catch and that will then learn from their experience. And with the kid at the airport when I said the mum “Don’t apologize. You’ve got nothing to apologize for.” Bring him forward, “Let’s try this, let’s have a go” and it worked! It worked on this occasion.

Bear in mind that these young adults may will be completely overwhelmed by their environment. They’ve come off an airplane, they’ve been involved in an accident and suddenly things are amplified for them and the next thing that they encounter in somebody in authority that sits on high, stands there wearing a hat in front of them. That’s a position of authority. And again, they’re overwhelmed as a result of that. And I think earlier that the parents give the child the opportunity to encounter things like that, it will be better for the kid and it will be better for them in later life.

DEBRA: So even in times of stress, if they’re more familiar with authority, you’re suggesting there will be at least they would have coped better, that would be one less trigger I suppose?

IAN: I think so and I’m sure there are some children that will never ever react in a good way to authority. And you’ve got to accept that. The policeman that I have dealt with in the past have been able to understand that. The young person or the adult that they’re dealing with has issues, they only see disabilities. You’ll never ever going to have a beneficial or good interaction with them because they simply can’t deal with it.

DEBRA: So is there an example that you can give us where these situations happen, where you’ve had a young adult who’s been able to explain “I’ve got additional needs” and has been all calm down?

IAN: Yes, again it involved a child that was engaged and been out shoplifting (bless him), something that lots of kids try…

DEBRA: We’re not encouraging shoplifting, are we?

IAN: Oh no, absolutely not. But lots of kids do and some of them tried it once, frightened themselves to death as a result of what they’ve tried and some of them are unfortunate enough to get caught on the first time that they do. And this was just one of those lads that are being caught the first time that he’d done it. What he tried to do wasn’t desperately subtle.

DEBRA: He wasn’t very good at it.

IAN: No, he wasn’t (bless him) and practice. When you actually sort of start to dig into what the issues were with this kid, he come from a background that was less fortunate than perhaps we have. And bear in mind that I did 34 years in the police force and started my policing career in the 1980s. The time when perhaps things weren’t politically correct in the way the things were dealt within the way that they were portrayed. And this was very early on in my career and the kid had been badly treated by the store. And when we actually looked into the background of where this kid had come from, why he was doing what he was doing.

And basically, he just been left into his devices. He couldn’t interact, he wasn’t able to interact with his friends because he was ostracized at the school that he went to. Because at those times, children like that went to ordinary schools. They didn’t have the ability or they didn’t have the possibility of going to schools as ours do. He was just out and about on his own. You start digging into what his issues were and it was more of the fact that he had never been shown the right way to behave with authority. And as soon as something had gone wrong for him, he kicked off, because that was his coping device because he’d found as he’s grown in his school, that was the way to deal with things. If he kicked off, if he overreacted to a situation, people tended to move away and leave him alone. And that’s what he had done on this occasion.

Once I really had gone in there and I’ve sat down with him and had spoken with him about what was going on, we were able to get to the bottom of where he was and why he was doing what he was doing or why he had reacted in the way that he had. Now, I never ever dealt with that child again (bless him). It was just unfortunate at those times, once you’ve dealt with it, once the store made the decision as to whether they were going to prosecute and thankfully, they didn’t prosecute him. I was able to take the child home. Take him back to his mom and dad (bless them). They didn’t deal with it appropriately either because they’d always learned that a policeman coming to their door was trouble and he got told off. I’m sure that when they closed the door, they got a wallop (bless him).

That wasn’t what I’d wanted to do. I wanted him to understand that he was, yes he was wrong for doing what he was doing, it was wrong initially for trying to go out stealing but once he’d actually been caught, he needed to understand that not all interactions with authority need to end up in the same way as they had done in the past.

DEBRA: But obviously, that’s reinforced by his parents then, isn’t it?

IAN: Of course, it is. Of course, it is. But they were talking about a time when there wasn’t the carer available and nowadays, there is a carer available. There are so many support mechanism, so many support groups out there to help people.

DEBRA: So, what advice would you offer a parent of a young person to sort of deal with managing these situations? What would be your final advice?

IAN: Don’t be afraid to talk to the person. Don’t apologize for the issue because our kids didn’t choose to be born with the issues that they have. So don’t apologize about it, first of all. But do take the time to explain if you feel that you need to explain. If the person that you’re dealing with, the police officer or the board of force officer or anybody else that is in uniform, that is an attraction to children with special needs. And very often, it is an attraction. It might be the bright police car, it might be the police helicopter or the police dog that’s walking along the street or something exciting that’s happening.

Nowadays, policeman carrying guns is commonplace. It’s widely reported in the public. Some people decry it, some people are supportive of the idea. If the young person shows an interest actually grasp and go and talk to the person because it may well be that that person or that figure of authority could be the place that the young person needs to go to for help in the future. So don’t be afraid to go and talk to these people and it’s beneficial in two ways. As I said before, it may well be that the first interaction that the police officer has or the person of authority has with a child with additional needs could be the one that they ever deal with. Or it could be the first one that they deal with that sets them up for the future to understand.

Actually, I’ve got to take a step back this child’s reaction to me, my uniform, what I’m carrying, the tools that I’ve got with me, the dog that I’ve got, the gun that I’m carrying. It could well be that that’s what drawn that child to that, that’s what caused that child, that young person to react in the way that they have done. And unless them the opportunity previously to experience that. And given the person in authority, the opportunity to experience it. You never ever going to create a situation where it’s of benefit and it’s easy to deal with things like that. So that’s my feelings. Take the opportunity to allow the child to experience the person in authority and allow the person in authority to experience the child with the additional needs.

DEBRA: As you say, they can learn from each other.

IAN: It’s a two-way street.

DEBRA: So the other thing that I guess I’ve taken from this as well is that we need to talk to them about how they handle someone in authority as they get older. Because what you’re saying is you take away the fear of someone in authority that they’re just normal human beings like you and me. And then as they get older, hopefully they will feel that they’re able to have the confidence to go to that person if they’re in that situation and say “Hi, I’ve got additional needs and this is what they are and this why I have done this.”

IAN: Yes, absolutely. But slightly more than that, they need to understand that there are boundaries and if they overstep those boundaries, the sanctions for overstepping those boundaries are not the result of their issues, they are the results of the boundary that they’ve stepped over and they’ve got to understand that people in authority are there for a particular reason. They are there to maintain the well-being of everybody else’s that’s surround them. Understand that they should be treated fairly. Should be treated equally. But by the same token, should be given the opportunity and the understanding that the reason that they’ve done the things that they’ve done as a result of their difficulties and not necessarily as a result of the fact that they just know that they can get away with it.

DEBRA: So no excuses but…

IAN: Absolutely, yes, understanding that you don’t get a free ticket but you get an additional pass. It’s probably the best way to put that extra help.
DEBRA: Ian, thank you very much for your time. That was excellent. Some really useful advice there on how we deal with people in authority. Thank you very much.

IAN: Thank you.

DEBRA: So what are the key takeaways from that really interesting interview with Ian is that take the time to explain to the person with authority what the issues are and explain why someone is behaving in a particular way and don’t leave people to guess because they might get it completely wrong and make the situation so much worse. And don’t apologize because you actually haven’t done anything wrong. And also don’t be embarrassed because you’re not actually protecting someone by not saying anything. You’re possibly making it worse.

And my second key takeaway is to be more proactive and help make authority figures more familiar to my own daughter and in fact I’m recording this bit of the podcast a couple of weeks after I spoke to Ian and last weekend, I was actually in London and had the chance to take his advice and talk to a police officer when I was with my daughter.

We had a short conversation and she did speak to this particular officer but to be fair, she was not very keen. And so her fear for one of a better word isn’t going to disappear from this one chat. But it’s something we would work on so that one day she will see talking to a police officer or in fact anyone in authority as nothing to worry about. And I hope as we build her independence skills, this will be something she can use as she navigates all the different agencies that one day we hope that she will be able to deal with all by herself.

Thank you for listening to the JourneySkills Podcast.  Please subscribe to this podcast and let me know what you think at www.journeyskills.com/podcast.  If you have a journey to share I would love to hear from you just email me debra@journeyskills.com

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