Police officer rejected from firearms training because of autism diagnosis was discriminated against, tribunal rules

Judge finds claimant’s move was denied by deputy chief constable despite ‘overwhelming’ positive feedback from her supervisor

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A police officer was blocked from applying to train for a role carrying firearms because of autism and dyslexia – despite “overwhelming” positive feedback from her supervisor, a tribunal has ruled.

The Manchester tribunal heard that Lauren Crawford – who was also an England international karate player – suffered direct discrimination when Cumbria Police’s deputy chief constable denied her application based on what the tribunal agreed was an outdated personal profile written while she was a “young girl rather than a mature woman”.

Her claims of direct discrimination and unfavourable treatment as a result of disability were both ruled to be well founded, but she did not succeed in her claim of harassment related to disability. 

Employment judge Katherine Ross found the decision to not allow her on to the course despite positive feedback and a successful stint as a police constable was consequently not “proportionate”.

Background 

Crawford began working as a special constable at the force in January 2015 while still at university. She attended university between 2013 and 2016 and obtained a first class degree in policing. 

The tribunal noted that Crawford was an “intelligent and impressive young woman” who was “clearly dedicated to her role as a police constable and wants to advance”.

On top of her work in the police, the tribunal heard that Crawford was a talented karate player who represented England at international competitions. 

Crawford was diagnosed with dyslexia in December 2013 while she was still at university and further received a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in September 2015.

While at university and working as a special constable, she informed her special constable supervisor that she had recently been diagnosed with ASD, despite this being a non-disclosable condition. The tribunal heard that she was unaware of this and informed them of her diagnosis as she felt it was “the right thing to do”.

On 25 February 2016, her supervisor referred the claimant to occupational health (OH) to consider whether any reasonable adjustments should be put in place given the diagnosis of autism.

On 8 March 2016, the claimant attended an appointment with Dr McGuinness, the force medical adviser. She took an envelope with information to the OH meeting, which included medical letters, a personal profile of three pages and the letter confirming her ASD.

She told the tribunal the personal profile held no direct relevance to the workplace and she did not want the force to retain a copy. It was deemed her diagnosis “does not appear to be having any significant adverse effects on her ability to undertake her usual role”.

After being appointed as a police constable in November 2016, the tribunal heard she “coped successfully” in the role.

On 2 June 2019, she applied to become an authorised firearms officer (AFO). She passed all parts of the application process, which included a memory test, observation test and a ‘fire shooting test’. She had also attended and passed a course on using a taser.

On 7 August 2019, Crawford attended an assessment with Dr Ezan, another force medical adviser. He said: “PC Crawford has no specific medical condition that should bar her from AFO duties.”

He added: “As there is no specific medical condition, the decision comes down to the risk the organisation is prepared to accept in the knowledge of all facts around her dyslexia and autism conditions.”

This screening caused a delay to her application and resulted in her being unable to start on the September 2019 course while it was decided whether Crawford was suitable to handle firearms. 

Inspector Telford sent a report on the matter to the then-deputy chief constable, Mark Webster, on 23 September. As part of the report, he received statements from her current and former supervisors, as well as an “unsolicited very positive email” about her taser abilities.

It was decided following this that the best solution was to continue to gain further information on Crawford to determine if she was suitable for the role.

The tribunal heard that Telford retired in July 2020 and his role was taken over by Sergeant Royle. It heard that Telford, Royle and Kevin Nicholson from the College of Policing consequently all recommended that she progress to the next stage, the firearms course.

However, despite this, on 1 September 2020 Webster made the decision not to allow her on to the course. The following day, he spoke to Simon Chesterman, chief constable of the Civil Nuclear Constabulary, whom he said endorsed this decision.

Crawford attempted to submit a grievance, but it was decided that “there was no power” to reconsider the decision of the deputy chief constable.

Judge’s comments

The tribunal determined that Webster “did not offer to meet with the claimant until after he had made his decision” and relied on the personal profile document, which the claimant compiled soon after her diagnosis while still at university, to make his decision to not allow her on to the course. 

Consequently, the judge said: “The tribunal has also taken into account that Webster never saw the claimant's application form and never met with her prior to his decision. He relied extensively on a document that was clearly out of date and no longer directly relevant. 

“The personal profile document is entirely at odds with the picture painted of the claimant by her application, her superiors and the fact she had worked successfully for four years at that time as a police constable without any adjustments in place relating to ASD.”

The tribunal accepted Crawford's own words that this document was put together in 2016 while she was “a young girl rather than a mature woman” and noted she had received “overwhelmingly positive” feedback from her superiors, which was a more up-to-date assessment of her abilities. 

“Accordingly, the tribunal is not satisfied that the respondent has shown that denial of permitting the claimant’s attendance at the initial firearms course was proportionate.” 

The judge added: “At the outset of this case, a casual observer may have thought at a cursory glance at the bare bones of this claim without considering all the information and the detailed evidence from the parties that, based on stereotypical assumptions, an officer with a diagnosis of autism was not suitable to attend a firearms course.

“Our task was to find the facts, consider the evidence and apply the law to the facts. We have done so and find in these specific circumstances, for the reasons given above, that is not the case and the claimant’s claims for disability discrimination as identified in the judgment succeed.”

The case will proceed to a remedy hearing on 18 January 2024.

Lawyers’ comments

Tina Chander, partner and head of employment law at Wright Hassall, said: “The tribunal found that preventing the claimant to progress to her chosen career specialism was clearly less favourable treatment and this was particularly so given that the claimant had been declined to be put forward for other roles in order that she could wait for a place on the firearms course.”

Julia Gargan, associate at Harbottle & Lewis, added that Crawford’s rejection had stemmed “directly from the decision maker’s assessment of the impact of the disorders on the claimant and a document prepared by the claimant (the profile document), which she had written during her time at university, reflecting on her experience of university and sixth form as a result of her diagnosis and therefore the decision could not be separated from her disability and was unlawful”.

She continued: “The case is a reminder to employers that at all stages of the employment cycle, including during an application process, employees must be treated equally and that a decision regarding an employee should not be made based on assumptions about the potential impact of their disability.

“In this case it was clear that the claimant had performed her role as a police officer successfully and there was no reason to assume she could not successfully undertake the firearms course.”