A police force has been fiercely criticised for failing to treat the bullying and harassment of a disabled man as a potential disability hate crime.
Kial Cottingham, 19, was this week sentenced by magistrates to 16 weeks in a young offenders institution, after pleading guilty to harassing David Askew, from Hattersley, on the edge of Manchester.
Askew, who had learning difficulties, collapsed and died in March soon after police received reports that youths had again been harassing him outside his home. Tests revealed he died from natural causes, due to a heart condition and undiagnosed cancer.
Cottingham admitted harassing him for more than six weeks, although Askew and his family – his mother is a wheelchair-user and his brother also has learning difficulties – had faced hostility, threats and abuse from local youths for 17 years.
Askew’s mother Rose said: “He had been put through hell over the years. It was not just one incident – it went on for years. Sometimes he would cry and ask me if I could move people out of our garden because they would call him very hurtful names.”
Greater Manchester Police (GMP) said Askew and his family “had been subjected to prolonged anti-social behaviour and harassment for a number of years before his death” and that Askew “had severe learning difficulties and because of this he was a regular target for youths”.
Despite this, GMP admitted to Disability News Service that they failed to investigate the incident as a possible disability hate crime.
So although the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) later “flagged” the case as a potential disability hate crime, the police did not have the evidence to prove Cottingham’s harassment was motivated by hostility or prejudice.
If they had done so, the CPS could have brought this to the attention of the magistrates, who would have had to increase his sentence.
A CPS spokesman refused to comment on “what the police may nor may not have done”, but he said the crown prosecutor did provide details of Askew’s “vulnerable situation”, which magistrates took into account in sentencing.
Two years ago, the then head of the CPS, Sir Ken MacDonald QC, was deeply critical of his organisation’s tendency to describe disabled victims of hate crime as “vulnerable”.
He said in 2008 that this use of the “vulnerable” label meant “we are one step away from making the assumption that disabled people should expect to be attacked because of who they are”.
Stephen Brookes, coordinator of the Disability Hate Crime Network, said he was “deeply saddened” by the failure of GMP when “other police forces through the country seem to be doing far more” in taking disability hate crime seriously.
But he said he was also “deeply disappointed” by the failure of the CPS to ask the police to produce the necessary evidence to prove that Askew was the victim of disability hate crime.
Mark Shrimpton, deputy chief executive of RADAR, said: “RADAR understand that Greater Manchester Police did not recognise the David Askew case as one motivated by disability hate.
“We find that astonishing and, if true, a fundamental error on the part of the police. Disabled people experiencing hate crime clearly continue to be let down by the criminal justice system.”
The Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) is looking at how GMP handled the crimes experienced by the Askew family.
A GMP spokesman said: “We have had contact with the Askew family for several years, with several different generations of offenders who have been after this family.”
He said the IPCC would be asking whether the force did enough to “save” the family and whether David Askew’s death could have been prevented by “further police action”.