Disability hate crime needs to be tackled01 June 2011
Keith Philpott was killed by so-called 'mates' because of his learning disability. In a new book, Katharine Quarmby asks what can be done to prevent this type of hate crime
He was a lovely lad, peaceful and quiet, says Pauline, his mother, looking at a photo of Keith Philpott as a baby with his twin brother Kevin, in her neat sitting room in Billingham, near Middlesbrough.
The twins were born prematurely, in November 1968, into a close-knit family with four older siblings, Carol, Stephen, Michael and Christine. They were diagnosed at around one with learning difficulties, and attended specialist schools throughout their childhood. Both left school unable to read or write much, but were prized locally for their handiness in repairing bicycles for children.
Christine tells me that Keith wanted to live independently after he came back from a spell in London, where he had attended college and lived with their brother, Stephen. Keith's flat seemed perfect. It was just 15 minutes' walk from his mother, and near other family members.
Keith was unemployed and filled his days with cleaning, cycle rides and visits to relatives, eating tea at his mother's house every night as he couldn't cook. But this tranquil existence was cut short in March 2005.
On 24 March, Pauline recalls, she had prepared one of Keith's favourite meals, sausages and mash, for his tea. But Keith never came. She, and other family members rang Keith's phone, again and again. Christine recalls: "It just went to voicemail, and he was never without his phone, it was his lifeline, so we knew something was wrong."
The family went to his flat and peered in through his bathroom window. They saw that the door was off its hinges and phoned the police. Officers broke the front door down to gain entry.
Inside, they found Keith's dead body. During the trial of Sean Swindon and Michael Peart for his murder, prosecutor Graham Reeds, said: "It is the pathologist's opinion that the deceased has first been intimidated or physically overwhelmed, then gagged and bound, then placed on the floor and assaulted by multiple punches, kicks, stamps to the head and face. Once reduced to unconsciousness or near death, he has then been stabbed in the abdomen in a peculiar manner producing a large, gaping abdominal wound. Bleeding may well have been the proximate cause of death."
The attack had stretched over several hours. Eventually, the two men left Keith dying on the kitchen floor. They had stolen the ring off his finger and his bicycle.
So what had provoked this vicious attack? Several months before his murder, Swindon's teenage sister had become friendly with Keith, who was 36. Reeds stressed that there was no evidence of any sexual element to the friendship, but that Swindon's sister complained to her family that Keith was sending sexually suggestive texts to her.
She, meanwhile, continued to go round to Keith's flat, to which she had been given a key, and sometimes "dossed there", according to witnesses. She smoked there, and brought boys and girlfriends to the flat.
The defence counsel for Sean Swindon, Aidan Marron, agreed with the prosecution that his sister's allegations were pivotal in the attack. He said in court: "They were accusations which were uppermost and at the vanguard of the defendant's mind when he went there on that particular occasion … [Her] accounts, did, in fact, fuel the mind of her brother."
The family had warned Keith not to associate with his new "friend" and her family, but had never thought that the nasty texts he was getting from her brother were anything but silly. They were worried that Keith was buying the sister beer, with what little money he had, and had said it would be best if she didn't have a key. But because he wanted to be independent there was a limit to how much they felt they could step in.
Swindon and Peart were convicted of Keith Philpott's murder. Swindon's sister was never charged, and there was no suggestion that she was involved in the violent attack that killed him. She lives four streets away from the Philpott family.
In Scapegoat: how we are failing disabled people in Britain, published next week, the results of this investigation show that there is an even smaller sub-set of crimes – called "mate crimes" – where people with learning difficulties are groomed and exploited by so-called friends – who then go on to assault them and, in the worst cases, murder them.
There are striking similarities in many of the cases. In eight similar crimes – the murders of Steven Hoskin, Laura Milne, Andrew Gardner, Sean Miles, Albert Adams, Michael Gilbert, the torture and imprisonment of Kevin Davies and the manslaughter of Shaowei He – the people who befriended their victims stole from them, and the false friendship and the scapegoating of the victim was usually for a sexual offence (and, in all the cases above, falsely). Many cases involve women as instigators of violence. All too often the assaults were dismissed by social care agencies before they culminated in murder.
Scapegoat analyses many such crimes and the motivations behind them. Many come about because people with learning difficulties living independently become socially isolated. They yearn for friendship – with fatal results. Keith Philpott had a loving family, unlike many others. But, as Reeds said, "he wanted to be friends with everyone" and was "very trusting of people".
David Grundy, who runs the Safety Net project in Calderdale, West Yorkshire, an initiative that supports people with learning difficulties to live independently, says that knowing the difference between real and false friendship is key. "There is a sense", Grundy observes, "for many people with learning disabilities that any kind of friendship is better than no friendship at all. We are having to teach people to recognise the difference between friendship and exploitation."
And there is another problem too. Many people with learning difficulties find it hard to navigate the etiquette of everyday encounters, leaving them vulnerable to unfounded accusations. In addition, I found when I looked back in history that folk memories of pernicious stereotypes of people with learning difficulties and their sexual proclivities, are proving very hard to shift.
So where do we go from here? Our society is poisoned by discrimination and prejudice against disabled people. But there are concrete steps that we can take. One would be to profile perpetrators, so that we can understand who they are, their motivations and identify danger signals earlier.
Chief constable Stephen Otter of Devon and Cornwall police, who speaks for the Association of Chief Police Officers on equality, would welcome this. He says: "You realise how little the authorities still know about the motivation that leads people to do such horrible things to other human beings."
The government should also fund an offending behaviour programme for disability hate crime offenders, as it does for those convicted of racial and sexual violence, that disabled people should be involved in running.
There must be better support for disabled people living alone, particularly those with learning difficulties or mental health conditions who are most likely to be targeted.
As David Congdon, head of campaigns and policy at learning disability charity Mencap says no one wants to go back to the bad old days when many disabled people were locked up in institutions, but poorly funded care in the community is not good enough either.
"To pretend that some people with learning disabilities don't need support is frankly immoral. I can think of people I know, with a moderate disability, they can survive well, but if someone targeted them, I think they could be in trouble," he says.
Later this month Mencap is launching a three-year campaign on disability hate crime, saying that it blights lives and leaves people afraid to participate as citizens in everyday life.
We need to understand the markers of disability hate crime, acknowledge that it occurs and charge it as such.
As the Independent Police Complaints Commission inquiry into the case of Fiona Pilkington found last week (Fiona killed herself and her disabled daughter Frankie after years of targeted harassment), the police failed to view what was happening to her as disability hate crime, dubbing it antisocial behaviour instead.
Lord Macdonald, the former director of public prosecutions, told me in an interview for the book: "You have got to mark the behaviour [as a disability hate crime] because if you don't it sends out the worst possible message, that that part of the case doesn't matter."
We need better training too, but using the information the police already have and deploying it better is key. Putting cases together and pulling out the common themes through perpetrator analysis and victim risk assessment is crucial.
And the law needs to be reformed so that murders motivated by hostility towards a victim's disability are sentenced as such. Section 21 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003, which advises the judiciary on the sentencing tariff, provides for sentence uplift for murders motivated by hatred of race, religion or homophobia – but not disability.
Back in Billingham, Christine Philpott says of her brother's murder: "They wouldn't have preyed on him if he was non-disabled, they knew he was an easy target."Back to news listing