Helping the vulnerable deal with police

SINGAPORE - It was close to midnight when Mr William Teo received a text message last month alerting him that a person with intellectual disability was being questioned by the police for suspected theft.

The 53-year-old got dressed and rushed to Bedok Police Division: He is one of 60 volunteers who have been trained as part of a pilot scheme aimed at helping vulnerable people during criminal investigations.

When Mr Teo got there, the man in his 40s had already been detained for about 10 hours and was visibly anxious.

"He kept asking if he would be locked up or if he could make restitution," said Mr Teo, a director at an engineering company.

"He mixed up the chronology of what happened, who was involved and was repeating the same thing over and over again."

Mr Teo calmed him down with reassurances and rephrased the questions asked by the police officer so that they could better understand what had happened.

It is not clear whether the man was eventually charged with theft, as volunteers are usually not privy to what happens after.

The pilot is run by an inter-agency committee which comprises the Attorney-General's Chambers, Ministry of Social and Family Development, police, National Council of Social Service (NCSS), Law Society of Singapore and the Association of Criminal Lawyers.

Since it started in April, trained volunteers have been roped in for more than 30 cases involving those with intellectual or developmental disability.

This is how the pilot works: The police will first administer a new screening tool called the Hayes Ability Screening Index, which will indicate if the person arrested is likely to have an intellectual disability. It is a 10-minute pen-and-paper test. Once identified, the police will call on a neutral volunteer, called an appropriate adult, to sit in when they question the arrested person.

Appropriate adults help to improve communication between the vulnerable person and the police and provide emotional support. They could also be called on as witnesses during trials.

The idea is to make sure the police statement reflects what happened as accurately as possible.

Studies overseas have found that people who are mentally disabled tend to incriminate themselves and confess to offences they have not committed, partly because they like to please people.

Another volunteer who has handled five cases so far said they usually defer to authority figures.

"They are very frightened of figures of the law and can say 'yes, yes, yes' to everything; but sometimes they are not guilty, but simply in the wrong place at the wrong time," said Mr Christopher Goh, 57, a property agent.

He makes it a point to hold their hand and talk to them casually to help them feel at ease during interrogation.

"They may have difficulties understanding some of the questions or may have limited attention span and may lose focus with the questioning," said Dr Hoili Lim, director of Allied Health Professional Services at the Movement for the Intellectually Disabled of Singapore.

A total of 138 offenders with mental disabilities were placed on probation last year, about three times more than in 2005, when the number was only 40. Some are hauled in for questioning for cases such as suspected theft, public nuisance, outrage of modesty or committing an obscene act.

Mr Lim Tanguy, director of the Law Society Pro Bono Services Office, said the pilot is a "great success". It received more than 120 volunteer applications and has appointed 60 after training them. The volunteers come from all walks of life; from students to mental health professionals to retirees.

The Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware) also offers a similar service in which its counsellors sit in at police interviews to help sexual-assault victims recount their ordeal.

The various agencies will assess the success of the pilot when it ends this month, and may implement the use of the screening test and the volunteers more widely.

Said Ms Tina Hung, deputy chief executive officer of NCSS: "This is a bold move for the administration of justice in Singapore and we hope more people will step forward to be trained and to volunteer."

Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to for more stories.