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All on board to help crime fighters and young suspects

Young people and those with mental disabilities are a vulnerable group in police interviews as they may not understand the significance of questions asked or the implications of their replies.

This is where an appropriate adult (AA) comes in - as an independent person trained to support suspects.

With an AA present, officers were found to behave differently with vulnerable adults, said a 2003 study of the British police system. They tended to place less interrogative pressure on suspects, for example, and attempted to establish rapport with them.

This ties in with the aim of a similar AA scheme that will kick off here in phases from April.

Young suspects aged below 16 can be accompanied by AAs in police interviews for emotional support and to prevent miscommunication.

The new initiative, announced by Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam on Jan 6, is the result of a multi-agency review of criminal investigation procedures involving youth suspects, following the death of a schoolboy in January last year.

Benjamin Lim, 14, fell to his death hours after being taken from school and questioned by the police. His case led parents to ask if officers should be allowed to interview minors alone, and about schools' roles when police arrive to question students.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL

The new scheme is largely considered a good move to help protect youth suspects. But some parents, lawyers and counsellors who work with youth say there are areas that may need improvement.

Experiences of other countries in tweaking similar AA schemes for youth may prove instructive.

An existing AA scheme here for those with mental or intellectual disabilities also provides a reference.

FAMILIAR FACE OR STRANGER?

The new Singapore scheme will apply to suspects below 16.

It is not mandatory for all of them to be accompanied by AAs during police interviews. The judgment will be made by the police. Independent volunteers, not family members, will act as AAs.

But in Britain, the scheme covers suspects under 18. In 2015, the age limit was raised from 17 after the suicides of 17-year-old suspects following police investigations.

There, it is also a statutory requirement for the authorities to request an AA in youth cases.

Also, family members can be AAs in Britain and New Zealand, while in Sweden, a legal guardian can sometimes be present at interrogations.

There has been debate over the pros and cons of the AA scheme for young people here.

Concerned parents, including Benjamin's father, believe that children should be accompanied by a familiar face, who could better assuage their nerves and prevent miscommunication than a stranger would. Others say family members could sometimes inadvertently sway proceedings.

Lawyer Amolat Singh said: "Parents may be the last people kids want to have around when they are questioned. They may fear their parents' scolding in front of officers, and a stranger may be better in putting them at ease."

A literature review by Britain's National Appropriate Adult Network (NAAN) showed that the problems with having parents as AAs include a misunderstanding of the role, the threat of physical violence towards the child and pressuring the child to confess.

Also, volunteers have proved to be effective as they can act without conflict of interest or emotional attachment, compared with family members and social workers, said the same British study.

MANDATORY OR DISCRETIONARY?

Some questioned if giving the police discretion to decide whether a young suspect should have an AA could affect the scheme's effectiveness.

Mr Shanmugam said on Jan 6 that young suspects will generally be accompanied by an AA - unless factors such as time constraints in activating volunteers could affect investigations.

Officers will need to consider if investigations would be prejudiced by waiting, he said.

But he added that "there is going to be a lot more training involved" for police officers in interviewing young suspects and assessing whether they need an AA.

Providing training is an important step. A study by NAAN, released in 2015, found that close to 250,000 adults with mental illnesses in Britain who should have received AA support did not. Around a third of police custody sergeants surveyed in the study said they received no training in identifying vulnerable adults.

Others say there is a risk of police not activating AAs for youth suspects who may be in distress.

It is important to note, though, that only 15 per cent of the more than 7,000 cases between 2011 and 2015 that involved youth suspects led to prosecution. And an even smaller fraction were for major crimes.

But it might be helpful to consider making it mandatory for AAs to be activated for youth suspects being investigated for serious crimes, such as murder, rape or rioting, that may lead to prosecution.

While there is a risk that the need to activate an AA for such cases may impede investigations, there is an arguably bigger need to provide support to the suspects, given the more severe consequences.

Discretion should be maintained for cases involving minor offences that usually lead to less severe outcomes like police warnings. This can minimise strain on resources.

But it could help boost public confidence and support if the police take steps to show that they are exercising discretion carefully, such as by setting out guidelines and procedures.

For instance, under the Movement for the Intellectually Disabled of Singapore (Minds) scheme, a person with a disability would typically have a card which can be shown to the police.

Police also administer a test to detect if someone arrested is likely to have an intellectual disability.

Similarly, police could consider adopting a checklist to decide if a youth suspect requires an AA.

Association of Criminal Lawyers of Singapore president Sunil Sudheesan, who is a member of the implementation committee, said that people may cast doubt on a system when there is discretion allowed.

But he added that the benefit of doubt could be given to the police first, and the system be regularly reviewed based on feedback from the police, suspects and AAs.

Another solution is to have suspects seek independent legal advice, he added.

WHOSE RESPONSIBILITY IS IT?

While some have raised questions about the system, it could be fine-tuned downstream.

Mr Shanmugam said the AA scheme should not be hard-coded, such as by preventing police from speaking to a suspect at all before an AA arrives. He cited a need to balance the interest of suspects with the need to solve crimes.

One hopes the authorities here are prepared to tweak the scheme, like how Britain did over the years.

But the scheme also requires effort from other stakeholders.

It will need strong buy-in from the public. This includes parents, who will need to be convinced of an AA's effectiveness.

When minors are involved in a police case, it is natural for parents' main concern to be that they are supported, even if, as in Benjamin's case, they are treated sensitively.

But if the scheme gives room to interference by family members, it could result in suspects who have committed an offence getting off scot-free.

AAs are no foolproof solution to youth suicides either.

The public has a role to play too, as the new AA scheme might require a bigger pool of volunteers than that of the Minds scheme.

Minds volunteers were activated 228 times last year for police cases, arriving within 11/2 hours each time.With the number of young people arrested being much larger than that - more than 7,000 in five years - the public could do more to help.

Only about 40 of Minds' more than 200 volunteers were activated more than twice last year, underscoring the need for not just a sizeable pool, but enough active volunteers as well.

"The challenge has been: Can you find that big a group of volunteers?" said Singapore Children's Society chief executive Alfred Tan. "And there is a need for volunteers to respond swiftly to requests."

He added that the volunteers also have to be well trained and effectively deployed.

When the Benjamin Lim case took place, there was a public outcry over the need to protect young people. Now that the authorities have acted, one hopes there will be strong public support in the form of volunteers.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 09, 2017, with the headline 'All on board to help crime fighters and young suspects'. Print Edition | Subscribe