Archive for the ‘Crime & Justice’ Category

Article: The courts are open but justice is a closed book

Wednesday, July 28th, 2010

The courts are open but justice is a closed book
The Times, 28 July 2010

By Heather Brooke

We are denied even the barest details of what goes on in supposedly public legal proceedings

Last week I had an encounter with open justice. I was attending the Information Tribunal hearing of a friend who is trying to peel back layers of secrecy surrounding allegations that the Liverpool Women’s NHS Foundation Trust had a history of silencing whistleblowing staff by offering them public money to sign confidentiality or ‘gagging’ contracts.

I’ve been to the Tribunal before when I was fighting for the release of MPs’ expenses and that’s when I discovered the only record of proceedings of this so-called “open” people’s court (the Tribunals are meant to be a less formal, more accessible form of justice) were my scribbled notes. When it came time to write a script for a dramatised version of the hearing my notes and those of other reporters were all we had to go on. I’d asked at the time if I could tape record the hearing and was told “no”.

This time I decided to press harder. The rhetoric of the English legal system is that justice must be seen to be done so why are the public forbidden – under threat of jail – from recording a verbatim account of proceedings? Not only that, rules are so opaque and obscure that court reporters struggle to report cases with any degree of accuracy or depth. And that is when there is a reporter in court, which these days is a rarity – there used to be 25 reporters covering national courts for the Press Association; by 2009 there were only four.

We are paying nearly £1.5 billion for the court service plus £2.1billion for legal aid and the salaries of nearly 1000 senior judicial officers. It’s a high price, but to be honest not enough to adequately fund the system. However, if we’re going to invest in the judiciary it’s vital we understand where our money is going and receive some benefit for our considerable contribution. The least we might have is an account of proceedings held in open court.

Anisa Dhanji, the judge, said she was concerned with the hearing being recorded. ‘Usually such requests are made in advance so the tribunal can maintain the necessary degree of control over the transcript.’

“Control” is exactly what a court shouldn’t be exerting. Once it is decided that it is open, there should be no restriction on how that open hearing is processed. She went on to say that she’d allow me to record now but I’d have to wait for a future ruling before I could “use” the recording.

The next day in court the Judge announced she’d made her ruling.
“Please turn your tape recorder off,” she said, looking sternly at me over her glasses. I did so.

A sharp focus on CCTV

Tuesday, May 18th, 2010

I wrote an investigative piece about the actual effectiveness of CCTV for the May issue of Wired Magazine (published in April). I have reprinted it below or you can see it in its full glory on the Wired website.

Investigation: A sharp focus on CCTV
By Heather Brooke|01 April 2010

As the major political parties jostle for position in the run-up to the general election, it’s clear that the way the next government monitors and controls information about us will fundamentally shape British society in the next decades.

Both the Blair and Brown administrations have pursued policies of setting up giant, centralised databases, such as the national Automatic Number plate Recognition (ANPR) system, which tracks vehicles through an expanding network of cameras across Britain’s roads, and the massive communications register behind the Interception Modernisation Programme, intended to log all UK telephone and internet traffic.

The Conservatives, meanwhile, have pledged to scrap the National Identity Register — a database that underlies the proposed ID card, which will store 50 items of personal information about every citizen — along with the children’s database, ContactPoint. (This extensive datastore, which was introduced after the Victoria Climbié inquiry in 2005, records every child’s name, gender, date of birth, address and parental contacts, along with educational and health details.) The Tories have also announced a scaling-back of the DNA database, in order to remove individuals who have never been convicted of a crime. Yet for all this maneuvering, the major parties have been uncharacteristically quiet on the most controversial of all the invasions of UK citizens’ privacy — CCTV.

Although it’s widely supposed that over the past decade there has been a significant increase in the number of surveillance cameras in the UK, it wasn’t until last year that hard numbers emerged via a Freedom of Information request. Big Brother Watch (, an anti-surveillance campaign group, found that the number of council-owned cameras had risen from 21,000 to 60,000 in less than ten years — equal to one CCTV camera for every 1,000 people in the country. Its report demonstrated a trebling of investment in local CCTV — even though Home Office research published in 2002 suggested that CCTV has a negligible impact on reducing crime.

Nevertheless, as public perception equates CCTV to tackling crime and antisocial behaviour, most MPs are happy to show up to the unveiling of a new surveillance system in their constituencies. The UK has more CCTV cameras per capita than any European country, yet figures released in July 2009 by the European Commission and United Nations showed Britain’s recorded rate of violent crime surpassed any other country in Europe. Does CCTV do anything to make us safer? If so, at what cost?

Bureaucrats and Blackmailers

Friday, January 1st, 2010

Over Christmas I happened to catch the Orson Welles Sketchbook broadcast December 26th on BBC4. Welles may have been speaking decades ago, but his message couldn’t be more pertitent to today. He disccuses state surveillance, police powers and blackmailing bureaucrats.

You can watch it here:

Welles relates stories from his travels around the globe dealing with border police and bureaucracy in general. He longs for his father’s day when people had free movement as opposed to, “nowdays [when] we’re treated like demented or delinquent children.” What on earth would he make of modern-day Britain, the most watched place on the planet?

He tells of being stopped at the border of a nameless European country by typically officious and bullying policemen. He’s at pains to tell us he is by no means an anarchist or against the police. He may play a practical joke on the police but he does not advocate breaking the law. Rather he wants to bring the policeman to law.

The best bits begin 9 minutes in where he explores the insidious dangers of ‘red tapism’.
“Think of all those forms we have to fill out. Why should I have to confide my religion to the police? No one’s race is anybody’s business.”

Yes the policeman has a difficult job a very hard job, he says, but, “it’s the essence of our society that the policemans’ job should be hard. He’s their to protect the free citzien. Chasing criminals is an incidental part of his job. The free citizen is always more of a nuisance to the policeman than the criminal. He knows what to do about the criminal.”

“We should be grateful for the policeman. But we should be grateful, too, for the laws that protect us against the policeman. There are those laws and they’re quite different from police regulations. And those regulations do pile up. The forms keep coming in.”

“The bureaucrat, and I’m including the policeman here, is part of one great big monstrous thing – really like a blackmailer. You can never pay him off. The more you give him the more he’ll demand.”

We accept each new demand because we don’t want to get into trouble with the police. It’s easier just to hand over whatever new piece of our personal lives the authorities require, to agree to yet more surveillance, more forms, more databases; to grant the police more powers of arrest.

Why should we make trouble? A better question in a democracy would be, as Welles says, “Why should the policeman make trouble for us?”

Public locked out: FOI won’t cover private prisons

Wednesday, November 11th, 2009

Despite being paid for by the public, prisons operated under government contract by private companies such as Group 4 will not be covered by a proposed extension of the freedom of information act. This marks a dangerous shift in which public services paid for by us are no longer accountable to us because they have been outsourced to a private company.

This was re-stated in a minister’s written answer yesterday in parliament.

10 Nov 2009 : Column 218W

Prisons: Freedom of Information

Philip Davies: To ask the Secretary of State for Justice whether he has plans to extend to private prisons the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act 2000. [298646]

Mr. Wills: On 16 July, the Government published the response to its consultation on extending the Freedom of Information Act by means of a section 5 order. It noted that it was not minded to include private prisons in an initial order. However, the Government have made it clear it intends to keep the extension of the Act under review.

Hidden High Court Injuctions

Friday, October 16th, 2009

The Twitter vs Trafigura case continues though it really is the Guardian newspaper and Wikileaks who have been driving this amazing story that illustrates the total lack of freedom of expression granted to the citizens of Britain.

For those who haven’t been following the case: The Guardian was attempting to report on Trafigura, a multi-national oil and commodity trader, but received legal threats from Carter-Ruck. This led to an injunction stopping them from publishing their findings. Yet not only were they prevented from publishing their article but the injunction also prevented them from reporting about the injunction!

These ‘superinjunctions’ are an incredibly draconian power and in a strong democracy they would only be used as a last resort in the most limited of circumstances – and when used this would be public knowledge. However, it now transpires that not only are these injunctions granted by judges with seemingly not a second thought for open justice, but there is no record of the judge’s actions either.

The Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, Bridget Prentice said yesterday, in answer to a written Parliamentary question that the information is not currently available and the High Court has no intention to collate such data:

Paul Farrelly MP: To ask the Secretary of State for Justice if he will (a) collect and (b) publish statistics on the number of non-reportable injunctions issued by the High Court in each of the last five years. [293012]

Bridget Prentice: The information requested is not available. The High Court collects figures on applications, however injunctions are not separately identifiable, and there are currently no plans to amend databases to do so.

I agree with wikileaks: “Time for UK journalists grow some balls and start violating censorship injunctions”

It is bad enough that superinjunctions exist at all, but it is absolutely appalling that there are not even records kept of how often they are used. Pressure needs to be put on the High Court to record these occasions, and make the details public as a matter of urgency.

Article: Top cops’ pay should not be top secret

Monday, August 10th, 2009

Top cops, come clean
The Guardian, 10 August 2009
By Heather Brooke

Secrecy feeds suspicion of a boys’ club stitch-up. Chief constables need to be open on pay and perks

Secrecy can be sexy. It’s essential to any good mystery novel. But there should be no mystery surrounding the pay of top public officials. In October 2008 I made freedom of information requests to every police force in the country seeking the full extent of chief constables’ perks and pay. I’d heard rumours top cops weren’t just getting top salaries but all sorts of other benefits, from grace and favour homes to chauffeur-driven SUVs and private health insurance.

These perks may be perfectly acceptable – after all, it’s a tough job. What is not acceptable is the vault-like secrecy in which they are awarded. Several forces told me their chiefs refused bonuses out of principle. But of all those who accepted them only one force, North Wales, fully disclosed the amount.

Why the secrecy? The official reason is that disclosure would be an invasion of chiefs’ privacy. Here’s the response given by City of London police: “We do not believe that disclosing the exact value of the commissioner’s bonus will add significantly to the public interest. By contrast, given that the commissioner has refused consent to disclose and has a reasonable expectation that the exact value of his performance-related payment will remain confidential, we believe that disclosure would be prejudicial to the commissioner’s rights and freedoms or legitimate interests.”

What about the rights and freedoms of taxpayers to know how their money is spent? What about knowing the criteria on which these bonuses are awarded? Are chiefs paid for achieving political goals? For decreasing crime statistics? For increasing the number of ethnic minority officers? We just don’t know.

We saw what lay behind MPs’ cries of invasion of privacy. What might we find hidden behind police chiefs’ resistance? On Thursday we got a glimpse: the Belfast Telegraph published the results of a freedom of information request made by a former Police Federation chairman and member of the Northern Ireland policing board, Jimmy Spratt.

Spratt sought the compensation package of Northern Ireland’s outgoing chief constable Hugh Orde, who is now president of the Association of Chief Police Officers. He managed to unearth a compensation package that included rent-free living in a £600,000 luxury home (purchased at taxpayer expense) along with the payment of all utility bills, including phone bills, electricity, rates, heating and property maintenance. This is in addition to a salary of £183,954 plus an annual bonus of up to 15% of salary. Other extras included £360 a year for broadband, £600 for private healthcare, and membership fees for Acpo and the Chief Police Officers’ Staff Association, estimated to be £1,000 annually. Another £8,294 was claimed for oil and £13,413 for rates, while £33,904 was spent to repair “defective combined drainage system” and to replace the kitchen.

Now you might think that a member of the police board (the Northern Irish equivalent of a police authority) would know exactly what comprises a top cop’s compensation package, as the board approves it. Not so. Spratt tells me that when you have a £1.2bn budget “you can’t really keep track”.

Us & Them

Saturday, February 28th, 2009

Us & Them
The Big Issue, February 2009
By Heather Brooke

Not one to believe hype, I was sceptical when I popped in the first series of the much-acclaimed TV series The Wire. For those who haven’t seen it, this is a series that breaks all the rules of TV drama and yet the hype is merited: it is the best thing on television.

Each episode is like a chapter in a book and the stories build across the season. The first deals with the police closing in on a drug dealer which is common enough in a cop show, but what makes The Wire different is that it focuses on the lives of the dealers and users as much as the police. There is none of the easy morality common to other police dramas. Instead there is reality. The writers know their subjects inside out. These are not champagne socialists writing about the lives of poor kids in Hackney, they are veteran newspaper hacks and homicide detectives who know the gritty scenes they describe.

I used to cover crime for a newspaper in South Carolina in a city with a large concentration of projects that were infested with drugs, and I often wondered why the people in these sink estates didn’t clean up, move out, get a better life. What did I know? A college girl from an English family? But at least I could talk to the vice squad who filled me in on what was happening. The stories the police told me didn’t always fit into the newspaper format, focused as it is on the end result: who got shot, when and why. The ‘why’ being the least explored part of the story. It wasn’t until I saw The Wire that I understood how these stories could be told. If you want to understand the cycle of poverty and addiction look no further.

The realism of The Wire is due in no small part due to the ability of the writers to get inside the institutions they cover. David Simon spent a year in Baltimore Maryland’s homicide division. Such inside knowledge informs the series and gives it the needed reality that makes it so powerful. Could such a show be written in the UK?

I’m not a crime reporter anymore but I am a freelance journalist and so I asked the Metropolitan Police if I could visit my local police station. In the US I went ‘round back’ all the time, even did shifts with various cops as a ‘ride-along’. Some forces in the UK offer this insight to members of the public, but not the Metropolitan Police. Even the full-time crime reporters in London aren’t allowed in. The only way I’m getting into my local police station is if I’m arrested.

Frankly that’s a cost I’m not willing to bear. It strikes me as counter-productive for the police to fortress themselves against the public whom they are meant to serve and protect. By refusing to let us in, they foster an attitude of ‘Us and Them’. Both for themselves and for us. The tie that might link us is broken.

I had another encounter with the ‘Us and Them’ attitude in Tottenham Court Road tube station. The escalators were shut but none of the guards were telling anyone why or when they might resume. When I went over to ask, the guard pointed to a gang of teenagers and said: “Your colleague there pressed the emergency stop.”

My colleague? What did he have to do with me?

In the mind of the TfL official it was clear all who were not TfL were some ‘other’: that great repulsive organism – the public.

Aren’t we the reason for TfL’s existence? If it wasn’t for us paying our extortionate fares this official wouldn’t have a job. And yet he views us all as one amorphous mass comparable to an enemy.

All institutions are susceptible to this type of thinking, but the danger is even greater when there is no competition. Where there is a monopoly on service the best solution is higher levels of transparency. We should be allowed into our local police stations, we should be able to see crime incident reports. It may not be easy, but an open door can bring many rewards, not least the best show on television.

Investigation into Police Chief Bonuses

Friday, February 13th, 2009

I worked with the Times Crime Editor Sean O’Neill on an investigation into police chief constables’ bonus schemes. The first part of this investigation was published on 24 January 2009.

Police chiefs net thousands from secret bonus scheme

A secretive bonus scheme set up to reward the country’s top 300 police officers is paying out hundreds of thousands of pounds every year.

The police service refuses to disclose either amounts paid to individual officers or total payments from the Chief Officers’ Bonus Scheme.

But The Times has learnt that senior Metropolitan police officers shared more than £190,000 in one year, while the top ranks at Greater Manchester collected more than £53,000.

Scotland’s most senior officer, Stephen House, the Chief Constable of Strathclyde, was paid a bonus for his first six months in post.

In some cases the bonuses are awarded on the basis of “self-evaluation” by chief constables. Critics claim that the payments are further evidence of what has been called a “gravy beat” at the top of policing. There is also concern among the top ranks that the bonus culture damages the image and integrity of the police.

* COMMENT: what have they got to hide?

* Knife-crime czar’s £200,000 ‘gravy beat’ job

A few days later the president of ACPO wrote to the paper seemingly in favour of full transparency of police bonuses. However, I’ve yet to see any of these figures disclosed and the forces continue to refuse my requests for this information.

Article: Police Bonuses

Friday, February 13th, 2009

From The Times, 24 January 2009
What have they got to hide?
By Heather Brooke

Investigation is a little like psychiatry where the most telling details are often those kept hidden. When only one police force is willing to tell the public what it pays its Chief Constable in bonuses curiosity is piqued. What do they have to hide?

The police chiefs who accepted bonuses not only refused to reveal the amounts, but also declined to say what they were for. Some Chiefs told us they refused bonuses ‘on principle’ which makes one wonder what principles are at stake? We can’t know that until we know the details of the bonuses.

They cited the Data Protection Act, claiming that it would be an invasion of their privacy for the public to know the details of their salary and benefits. This may interest chief executives of public companies who must disclose this information in their annual reports.

It’s a topsy turvy world when the public have more rights to find out how the heads of corporations spend their shareholders’ money than the public do the heads of their public services.

The Data Protection Act is a badly written law. It is understandable that no one can understand it, but it is the implementation of a European Directive designed to protect the privacy of private individuals not to help public officials avoid public accountability.

The law hinges on a fairness principle and a balancing test is used to compare personal privacy interests to the public interest in knowing the information. Under this test, if the information is determined to be private, it can be released anyway if it is found that the public interest in release is more important than the privacy interest. There have been several cases now, including a High Court case on MPs’ expenses, where this balancing test has been done and the public interest found to outweigh the individual privacy interests.

In the case of Chief Constable pay there is clearly a valid public interest in this information. The public pay this money. They have a right to know how much and what it is for. Are the bonuses for cutting particular types of crime? Has this resulted in changes to the way crimes are recorded? Until the bonuses are published we just don’t know how they are affecting policing.

Another issue of concern is the massive non-compliance with the Freedom of Information Act. Of the 57 requests sent out at least 38 forces failed to answer legally. They simply let the deadline come and go failing to provide a legal reason for their continued delay. The police enforce the law, so what does it say when they don’t obey it themselves?

Secret Policemen are having a ball at our expense

Sunday, January 18th, 2009

Secret Policemen are having a ball at our expense
The Big Issue, December 2008
By Heather Brooke

Once upon a time people complained of rarely seeing a bobby on the beat. Now they’re lucky to get a full glimpse of a policeman’s face.

Watching the video footage of police searching the office of MP Damian Green I noticed that practically the first words out of the investigator’s mouth were: “turn that camera off.’ This was in response to another MP daring to film the police in action as they searched and seized Green’s possessions without a warrant.

According to the Tory party, the posting of the video footage was delayed because the Metropolitan Police demanded that the officers’ faces be blanked out. Why?

Robert Peel created the principals of policing when the Metropolitan Police was first created in 1829. He ensured every police officer be issued a badge number, to assure individual accountability. His most famous principal:

Police, at all times, should maintain a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and the public are the police; the police being only members of the public…

That’s worth keeping in mind as the police increasingly demand special rights which they deny the law-abiding citizen. Here’s an example: Go to any protest or an event held outside Parliament and you will see police officers filming people who have committed no crime yet if any Joe Public attempts to film the police he will quickly find himself harassed, threatened with arrest or have his camera seized or film deleted.

Go into any police station and you will find yourself under the gaze of CCTV, yet if you dare to get out your own camera you’ll be ordered to stop immediately; if you persist you’ll be threatened and likely ejected from the building.

Don’t be fooled. This is not about security. It is about power. We know it’s about power because if citizens wear masks, the police force their removal. Being able to identify someone is the primary way of holding that person to account.

It is well documented that people behave differently when granted anonymity, and not usually for the better. In a crowd or under the orders of a powerful leader, people will commit all sorts of outrageous behaviour, say all kinds of offensive things if they feel cloaked by the mantel of anonymity.

The police have a monopoly on force so it is right that in a democracy, police officers are individually accountable for how they exercise this force. Anonymity invites abuse. Yet police forces are increasingly demanding anonymity for their officers. The officers who shot Jean Charles de Menezes remain unidentified, as do the officers who killed Derek Bennett, 29, when they thought his cigarette lighter was a handgun.

I’ve worked as crime reporter in the US and the default position there is the opposite: police are identified by name and their photographs are published unpixilated. Anonymity is granted rarely and only if there is a quantifiable threat to the officer. Even FBI agents are named in court cases. Individual accountability is the cornerstone of public service effectiveness. Common to all totalitarian systems is that agents are hidden. Is this what we want from our police?