The Language of Vulnerability: Analysis on Three Levels

The language of vulnerability in the QPS (2010) Vulnerable people Policy (the Policy) and relevant chapters of the QPS (2014; 2015a, b) Operating Procedures Manual (the Manual) were analysed in light of academic literature and approaches taken in other jurisdictions. This analysis was conducted at three levels of linguistic classification: first, umbrella terms used to group together people from a broad range of social groups; second, siloed terms that refer to particular social groups classified as vulnerable; and third, specific terms to refer to members in specific circumstances within siloed groups.

Level 1: Vulnerability-Related Umbrella Terms

A list of the umbrella terms used to refer to vulnerable people in the Manual (QPS 2014) is presented in Table 5.1. This analysis did not elicit terminology anticipated from previous reviews of the literature, such as ‘disadvantaged’, ‘risky’, ‘problem-people’ and ‘vulnerable populations’.

The list of circumstances, which aims to clarify the category of vulnerable people referred to under umbrella terms in Table 5.1, essentially focuses on lack of agency (impaired capacity) and cultural affiliations; the latter of which reflects the historically tense relationships of police with some cultural groups in Australia (Bartkowiak-Theron and Asquith 2015). However, this list has the merit of attempting to be comprehensive, with the Manual emphasising that vulnerability may occur at all stages of the

Table 5.1 Umbrella terms used to refer to vulnerable people in QPS Operating Procedures Manual



• A person with a special need;

'persons who, because of any condition or circumstance, have a reduced capacity to look after or manage their own interests' (p. 4)

'While it is not possible to supply an exhaustive list of persons who have a special need, the following

• Persons with special needs;

circumstances should be considered as creating a special need until the contrary becomes apparent: (i) immaturity, either in terms of age or (ix) drug dependence;

• Special needs person;

development; (x) cultural, ethnic or religious factors including (ii) any infirmity, including early dementia or those relating to gender attitudes;

• The person with the special need

disease; (xi) intoxication, if at the time of contact the

  • (iii) mental illness; person is under the influence of alcohol or a
  • (iv) intellectual disability; drug to such an extent as to make them
  • (v) illiteracy or limited education which may unable to look after or manage their own impair the person's capacity to understand needs;

the questions being put to them; (xii) Aboriginal people and Torres Strait

  • (vi) inability or limited ability to speak or Islanders; understand the English language; (xiii) children; and
  • (vii) chronic alcoholism; (xiv) persons with impaired capacity' (2014, p. 4)
  • (viii) physical disabilities including deafness or loss of sight;

• A vulnerable person

'a reference to a person with a special need is also a reference to a vulnerable person' (p. 2)

Note that the list given to assist police officers in identifying vulnerable people in the Vulnerable Persons Policy appears to have been drawn from the chapter in the Operating Procedures Manual on Special need.

• 'At risk' person

Note: although a definition of 'at risk' was not included in the Manual, a list of situations in which a person may be 'at risk' [of harm] was included as follows.

'Situations... where the person is subject or exposed to:

• personal and property crime (e.g. assault, break • suicide;

and enter); domestic violence; • sexual assault;

  • • drug and alcohol abuse; • bullying;
  • • mental health problems; • street gang affiliation;
  • • elder abuse and neglect; • neighbourhood disputes; and
  • • road trauma; • child safety issues (2014, p. 12).

Source: All terms were drawn from QPS Operating Procedures Manual Chapter 6 Special need (QPS 2014), unless another chapter number is stated. Additional terms were cited in: 5. Children (Queensland Government 2015a); 7. Child Harm (Queensland Government 2015b); and 16. Custody (QPS 2014).

policing process and relate to ‘suspects in the commission of simple or regulatory offences; respondents, aggrieved or named persons in domestic and family violence matters; or complainants, witnesses or victims in all types of offences and incidents’ (QPS 2014: 4, emphasis added).

In keeping with the inclusion of suspects and respondents and the notion of a non-exhaustive list of vulnerabilities (QPS 2010, 2014), the Manual affords discretion to Watch house Managers in the segregation of prisoners for their welfare if ‘for any reason [they] are considered by the watch house manager to be vulnerable’ (QPS 2014: 33). As such, the umbrella category of vulnerability allows discretion in policy and in practice guidelines and provides for those who are not named in the categories of vulnerable people. This holistic approach is notable and is in contrast to other limiting directives, such as those featured in the NSW Law Enforcement (Powers and Responsibilities) Regulation 2005, where a prescribed and exclusive list is provided with the caveat that it ‘does not include a person whom the custody manager reasonably believes is not a person falling within any of those categories’.

We regard the Vulnerable Persons Policy (QPS 2010), and the inclu- sivity of the definition of vulnerable, as a positive step towards a less stigmatising policy approach. Despite the existence of the Policy, it is noteworthy that the term, ‘vulnerable people’ is not used in the Special need chapter of the Manual (QPS 2014), except to equate it with the term ‘special need’. One possible explanation for this duplication of terms is the historical development of the document (chapters are updated in line with changes in legislation). However, given that the same list is provided in both the Policy and the chapter on ‘Special need’ in the Manual, the chapter is likely to have pre-dated and informed the Policy.

The term ‘special need’ has been disputed. For example, Tasmania’s Guidelines for Inclusive Education states that the term ‘special’ and ‘special needs’ should be avoided when referring to people with disabilities, as these terms have been used to segregate students in the past (Department of Education 2011). The Australian Network on Disability (2015) states that term ‘special’ implied heroism that can be seen as patronising. In the context of the QPS Manual, the term ‘special need’ is used to refer to many groups as an inclusive term, rather than to designate a particular group of people with disabilities. We suggest the attribution of ‘special needs’ is superfluous given that the Manual documents the situational contexts that may trigger a referral to support services. This point is discussed later in our Level 3 analysis.

The use of ‘at risk’ within the chapter on Special need may be a result of adopting terms used by partner organisations. While any terminology could be considered problematic by at least some stakeholders (Department of Health 2009), in our observed use of the term, ‘at risk’ is seldom contextualised (e.g. ‘at risk of harm’) let alone conceptualised. This makes its application problematic and subject to incorrect and possibly dangerous policies and practices. When ‘at risk’ is explained, such as ‘people at risk of abuse’ (Stevens 2013), it leads to an implication that abuse or harm is a foregone conclusion. Advocacy organisations such as Purple Orange (2011) have argued that terms should not be used in such a way as to focus on individual attributes as a cause for the potential of abuse, but to focus on the circumstances surrounding the person (such as receiving personal care) that increase such risks.

Within the context of the increased surveillance that comes with the labels of ‘at risk’ and ‘special need’, the term ‘vulnerable people’ may be preferable to stakeholder groups, and has the added advantage that this nomenclature already exists in the policy frame of some policing services. For example, it is also used in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT), in its Working with Vulnerable People (Background Checking) Act 2011. In addition to children, vulnerable people include adults who ‘experience disadvantage and access a regulated activity or service related to the disadvantage’ (ACT Government 2015: 6). A similar approach is under consideration in Tasmania, with a proposed definition of vulnerable people as those who ‘access services... to alleviate the effects of physical, social, financial and/or psychological disadvantage’ (Department of Health and Human Services [DHHS] 2010: 20). These approaches decentre the individual attributes used in the past to constitute normative lists and reflect the reality of situational vulnerability and individuals’ changing vulnerability (Australian Capital Territory Government 2015; DHHS 2010). However, such definitions based on service clientele are too narrow in the policing context, as many vulnerable persons do not access policing ‘services’ for fear of community retaliation, a distrust in the police or previous experiences of inappropriate policing (Asquith 2012).

Despite a powerful argument for the definition of ‘vulnerable’ as a potentiality (Gilson 2014), negative connotations of the term are dominant in popular culture and policy documents (see e.g. Thorneycroft’s discussion of disability). However, objections to the use of the term ‘vulnerable people’ arise when the term is used exclusively to refer to a particular group of people such as adults with intellectual disabilities (UK Department of Health 2009), and when the term is used to justify intervention in decisions about people’s lives (Dunn et al. 2008). Given that the term ‘vulnerable people’ is used more broadly by the QPS, we suggest that its use as an umbrella term is appropriate to the situational contexts of policing and criminal justice.

< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >