Archive for the ‘Crime & Justice’ Category

Family Court Secrecy

Monday, October 20th, 2008

Family courts are to be opened up to public scrutiny The Times announces today. The move is in response to mounting criticism from parents whose children are taken into care and complaints that they are victims of “secret justice”.

I wrote about the problem of secrecy in the Family Courts back in 2004 in the first edition of Your Right to Know. The situation has not improved since then despite government promises for reform and a consultation in 2006. The former Lord Chancellor, Charlie Falconer, made the cowardly decision to maintain the status quo which gave social workers and other so-called ‘experts’ a license to operate with almost total impunity.

The power to seize people’s children must surely be one of the most draconian state powers. Great power entails the greatest amount of accountability which can only come through openness. Yet that is precisely what’s been missing from the Family Courts. It is good to read that judges have finally begun to see the damaging costs of secrecy. But opposition is still strong from those organisations representing social workers. They claim secrecy is necessary to protect the privacy of the child, but more often it protects social workers from public scrutiny.

Judges already have the power to impose naming restrictions to protect children’s privacy so there is no need to close off an entire branch of the judicial system. Public confidence in the justice system can only be assured if the courts and the evidence used in those courts are open to the public.

Secrecy allows bad practice to carry on unchecked. It fuels mistrust in the judicial system. Stories abound of the courts removing children from their families on flimsy medical evidence or simply the opinion of a social worker who may have never even met the child.

I believe this current shift in opinion is mostly due to the writing of Camilla Cavendish who was able to put faces to the nameless victims of Family Court secrecy. It is often the case that while the costs of openness are exaggerated, if not blatantly made up, the costs of secrecy are discounted and ignored. Cavendish was able to show in terms of ruined families’ lives the cost of Family Court secrecy.

Social workers have been allowed to think they are above the law and their opinions not open to question. The reputation of the Family Courts depends on the ability of the public to see justice being done.

More backward than Mississippi?

Monday, September 29th, 2008

When I worked as a crime reporter in South Carolina, I was used to reading through ALL police incident reports. Some information was redacted (such as witness names in sensitive investigations) but not much. The default was always on openness as it was the public who paid for the police and in whose name they worked.

South Carolina is not renowned as a progressive state but residents could at least claim they were more enlightened than the residents of Mississippi – a real backwater! I read in the papers that the Mississippi Legislature earlier this year approved changes in the state’s Open Records Law to provide citizens with more access to crime reports. The idea is that citizens not only should have access to their government, but that opening law enforcement incident reports is a matter of public safety as well as being a crime-fighting tool.

Try telling that to ANY police force in the UK where all criminal incidents reports are strictly off limits to the public.

Local Papers and crime data

Monday, September 29th, 2008

A fear of violent crime is a common enough headlines so it is understandable that the public should have questions about the effectiveness of British law enforcement.

Since the FOIA, it has been possible to request figures about crime and policing and many local newspapers are doing just that.  The Sunderland Echo made an FOI request to Northumbria Police asking for the number of sex assault reports.  On 27 September it reported:  “From January 2006 to July 2008, detectives in the city received 669 reports of sexually-motivated attacks” That is a sex assault every other day, although: “There is nothing to suggest Sunderland has a worse problem than other UK cities.”

Numbers released to the Worcester News under the FOIA show that: “The number of people in south Worcestershire given a police caution for violent crimes has risen from 306 in 2004/5 to 566 in 2007/8.   The sharpest increase is in the number of cautions for actual bodily harm”.

The 26 September edition also contains a comment on this story: “One solicitor we have spoken to makes it clear he believes the increase in the number of police cautions is a matter of finance, though the police deny this.  The cost of bringing a thug to justice should not be a factor.  Decent, law-abiding people want to see justice being done.”

These articles show why FOI is useful as it helps the public more accurately gauge crime in their area and what police are doing about it. Through public oversight, the police are able to earn the trust they deserve.  That is not simply because justice is done but because “decent, law-abiding people” see it done.

Met keeps crime statistics under lock and key

Thursday, July 17th, 2008

From The Guardian, Thursday July 17, 2008
Met keeps crime statistics under lock and key
By Heather Brooke

The UK is one of the most watched societies in the world, yet the police are loath to release crime data

We may finally be let into the great secret of just how safe – or unsafe – we are as momentum builds to publish a breakdown of criminal incidents in London, though the battle is far from over. The Metropolitan Police plans to publish some data as early as next month. However, initial indications are that only property crimes (not violent crime) will be revealed, and that the data will be aggregated into large, artificial geographic regions called “super-output” areas.

I’ve long campaigned for the release of criminal incident data broken down by street, having lived in the US where it was easily available. I worked as a crime reporter, and not only were anonymised crime incidents published weekly in the local newspaper (and now online), but as a reporter I could go through individual incident reports down at the station.

Knowing what crimes happen and where is important for several reasons. First, people want to know how safe (or unsafe) they are. They need accurate and detailed data if they are to form an opinion of the safety of their neighbourhood. When they know what’s happening, they are in a better position to help or support the police. They are also better able to hold the police to account. This is perhaps what the police fear most, but it is a misplaced fear according to Richard Pope, the creator of civic website planningalerts.com (a site that mines planning applications to local authorities and provides alerts by postcode) and groupsnearyou.com.

“The police are coming at this the wrong way,” Pope says. “They’re scared that people are going to use it against them, but it could really help the police.” A few years ago he had the idea of building a civic website using crime data mapped out and accompanied by a discussion forum where neighbours could talk about problems in their area and liaise with their local police officer. “But we couldn’t get any raw data,” he says, so the project never got off the ground.

It seems ludicrous that, sitting in my flat in London, I can look online to see what’s happening on a street in Chicago and yet know nothing about what’s happening outside my front door. However Richard Thomas, the information commissioner, has said that releasing crime data from the grip of the police into the hands of the public would violate victims’ privacy.
(more…)

Article: Let’s get crime mapping

Thursday, June 26th, 2008

From The Times, June 26, 2008
Crime mapping: we can’t afford to ignore it
By Heather Brooke

It works in America – and could help to improve crime clear-up rates dramatically

Most police forces in American cities provide the public with a list of all crimes, broken down by street or city block. You might read of a robbery on the 1600 block of 9th Avenue at 11pm for example, or three assaults in close proximity on Tuesday.

When I was a crime reporter in America, I was able to view all police incident reports, jail booking records and every warrant signed by the magistrate. I had some privileges as a reporter, but all this information was considered to belong to the public. The logs can be found in local newspapers or online and give the enterprising citizen the ability to build their own crime maps such as: www.spotcrime.com and http://chicago.everyblock.com/crime/. People use these maps to band together to pressure their police to tackle problems. As most police chiefs are directly elected, solutions are quickly found.

The police in Britain, however, feel they “own” crime data and the public have no right to know what is happening. Yet access to criminal incident data is vital, as it allows the public to judge the effectiveness of the police and crime policies. In a void of ignorance, a politician or police chief can claim anything he likes about crime: that binge drinking is endemic or under control, that muggings are increasing or falling, that policing is working or failing.

The police can also hide their failings. Northumbria police claimed that only three crimes of note had occurred one weekend in May, yet a freedom of information request revealed that, in fact, there were more than 1,000 incidents, 161 of them violent.

I asked the Metropolitan Police last summer if they could publish this data, if not by street then at least by postal code. No. The Met’s excuse was that it was technologically impossible (which I doubt), and in any event, “had it been possible to produce this data, it would have been likely rejected as a breach of the Data Protection Act”.

Shamefully, the Information Commissioner has objected to the plan of Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, to allow people to know what crime happens in their street, arguing that it would breach the privacy of the victims of crime. But the Data Protection Act does not prohibit personal information being disclosed. Its purpose is to ensure that such disclosure is for a legitimate purpose.

Yet again a policy that would be of great public benefit is being blocked by an unthinking, fetishistic attitude towards privacy. A balance can easily be struck between the privacy of those reporting crimes and the overall safety of citizens. The only people made safer by the current policy of wilfully enforced ignorance are poorly performing police chiefs.

Police PR Spending

Friday, May 23rd, 2008

A three-month project by James Ball and I using the Freedom of Information Act to examine police spending on public relations, press offices and marketing concluded with two pieces in today’s Times:

Long arm of police spin-doctors costs almost £40m a year

Tough on crime – or on the image of crime?

We found that police forces across the UK are spending £39m each year on press and PR – enough to fund an extra 1,400 full time officers and more than enough to cover the annual police pay rise withheld by the Government. The force at the top of the league (Police Service Northern Ireland) spends eight times more per person on PR than the lowest (Derbyshire). Meanwhile, forces spend nearly ten times more on PR (what police want us to know) than on FOI (what we want to know).

Also while resources are pumped into PR, we found a distinct lack of interest in responding to our FOI requests. Only 19 of 53 forces responded to our requests on time. All the rest broke the law. They had a variety of explanations though some offered none at all. Police Service Northern Ireland had the most novel excuse – their FOI officer was on an advanced driver training course. It had no affect in speeding up their tardy reply which came more than a month late. If any of us were to break the law I doubt such excuses would carry much weight. Even those committing non-crimes such as parking get no leeway.

When we called the press offices for comment, however, it was remarkable how quickly forces found the time to re-examine their figures to decrease the amounts, often claiming the initial figures they’d given us were incorrect.

There is lot more detail than we could get in the newspaper so check out the summary or the full database for the full story on how your police force responded.

Summary of press and PR spend in the 52 police forces questioned

Full Database (Excel). Here you’ll find a sheet with the main findings, a summary sheet and finally the full detail of all our requests to 52 police forces.

Police PR Press Release

Link to Secret Squirrel page

PR/Press spend per 100,000 people, per year
Top 5
Police Service Northern Ireland £99,501.01
Metropolitan Police Force £85,629.10
Northamptonshire Police £80,138.57
Dorset Police £72,670.79
Merseyside Police £68,189.82
Bottom 5
Derbyshire £12,566
Dyfed-Powys £19,088
Durham £20,193
South Yorkshire £20,818 (ave 3 years)
Lincolnshire £20,934
Total PR spend increases
Top 5
Cumbria Constabulary 125%
Dyfed Powys Police 77%
Lincolnshire Police 72%
Northumbria Police 55%
Devon & Cornwall Police 43%
PR staff spend increases
Top 5
Thames Valley Police 146%
Cumbria 136%
Lincolnshire 72%
Dyfed-Powys 65%
Hampshire 61%

CCTV – billions of pounds of failure

Tuesday, May 6th, 2008

Even the police now admit that CCTV is a complete waste of money.

This quote from Detective Chief Inspector Mick Neville of the Metropolitan Police says it all:

“CCTV was originally seen as a preventative measure. Billions of pounds has been spent on kit, but no thought has gone into how the police are going to use the images and how they will be used in court. It’s been an utter fiasco: only 3% of crimes were solved by CCTV. There’s no fear of CCTV. Why don’t people fear it? [They think] the cameras are not working.”

Of course, if private companies and individuals want to waste money on preventative measures that don’t actually work, then that’s their business. What is disgraceful is the amount of taxpayers’ money that has been handed out by the Home Office on this useless and invasive technology.

PR is taking over our public institutions

Tuesday, April 1st, 2008

So what if the truth is inconvenient?
The Times, April 1, 2008
By Heather Brooke

A senior police worker is facing a disciplinary hearing for “damaging the reputation” of West Yorkshire police. Philip Balmforth is in trouble for granting an interview to The Times last month on Asian girls going missing from Bradford schools. Bradford City Council complained to the force claiming his high-profile work was damaging the city’s image and was “bad for regeneration”.

Now, I thought the police’s role was supposed to be about solving crime, not engaging in “reputation management”. Obviously I’m behind the times: clearly PR has taken over our public institutions.

Public sector bodies should not be in the business of reputation management. The reputation of a private company has value because it is by reputation that customers choose to buy goods and services. But most public institutions are monopolies; we have no choice but to buy, if not use, their services. In the absence of competition it is only through public scrutiny – and whistleblowing – that some level of accountability is gained. To try to restrict this is wrong.

Yet many public institutions forbid staff from speaking to the public or press without clearance from the all-powerful press offices – and permission doesn’t come easy unless you’re peddling a saccharine story. The fine line between co-ordinating communication to provide the public with clear information and propaganda used to push an agenda has been crossed by many bodies.

Mr Balmforth is a national expert on forced marriage. Why should he have to clear everything he says with a press officer? He was giving facts about crimes and should not be used as a pawn to sell a particular political policy. Bradford council’s wish to airbrush out ugly realities comes at the direct cost of the happiness, even the lives, of young girls.

We think it absurd that Thailand has a law against insulting the King. We are shocked by Turkey’s prosecution of Orhan Pamuk, the award-winning novelist, under Article 301 of the penal code for the offence of “denigrating Turkey’s national identity”. We might laugh at Brunei’s constitution which declares: “His Majesty the Sultan can do no wrong in either his personal or any official capacity” and further admonishes that “No person shall publish or reproduce in Brunei or elsewhere any part of proceedings. that may have the effect of lowering or adversely affecting directly or indirectly the position, dignity, standing, honour, eminence or sovereignty of His Majesty the Sultan”.

Now just replace “His Majesty the Sultan” with Bradford council or West Yorkshire Police and you get an idea of the thinking in some of our public institutions.

Police misconduct claims cost £44 million

Monday, December 3rd, 2007

My investigation into the amounts paid out by police forces across England, Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland concluded with two pieces in today’s Times:

Police misconduct costs forces £44m
We need this data to catch and fix problems in system

This is the first-ever disclosure of compensation payouts for public liability claims and clearly shows the value of freedom of information. The high percentage of claims that settle out of court is worrying as it hides the extent and exact nature of allegations of police misconduct.

Also surprising, was that many police forces didn’t actually know how many times they’d been sued or even how much taxpayer money they’d paid out in public liability compensation. How can we have an informed debate about police conduct and the ‘compensation culture’ when the data is unknown? (I’ll be posting up the full database of responses soon.)

In the UK, we have little knowledge about the machinery of government – those records and data created and maintained by the state in the course of its public service duties. Yet this is the data that citizens must have if they are to meaningfully hold the state to account.

How professional and competent are the police? This is a question that gained new relevance in light of the fatal shooting by the Metropolitan Police of an innocent Brazilian Jean Charles de Menzes. In order to answer this question I made Freedom of Information requests to all 55 police forces asking for data about the number of claims received, their progress and final payouts over the past five years.

The results were intriguing and showed that record-keeping continues to be a problem for many police forces. A sizable majority could not say how many claims had resulted in court action, not did they always know how much they had paid out in settlements and it took quite some digging for some forces to even know how often they’d been taken to court!

The reliance on government-imposed mandates at the expense of direct accountability became clear. If it’s not required by Whitehall, many forces simply don’t see a point in keeping accessible data, even if it is clearly in the public interest – such as the amount of taxpayer’s money they’re paying out for police misconduct. For example, Kent Police provided no information at all stating that “we do not at present collect or collate this information and therefore are not in a position to provide it.” Cheshire Police told us that wrongful arrest was “every day sort of stuff” and they “don’t have any need to keep [the data] in the format you asked for.”

Another surprise was that Cleveland Police, which is in the top 3 for both compensation and claims per 100,000 – stated that since 2004 they have stopped recording the number of court actions.

Many forces were loathe to be compared with each other. Durham claimed that its data was “unique and should not be used as a comparison with any other Force response you receive.”

Some forces claimed the only way they could determine if a claim had resulted in court action was to look through hundreds of files at a cost that ranged from 10 minutes per file (Wiltshire Constabulary) to 60 minutes (Strathclyde Police).

The Metropolitan Police, North Yorkshire Police and Greater Manchester Police force claimed (incorrectly) that the data was already published in their annual reports and failed initially to provide page numbers to hundred-page documents. While Warwickshire Police incorrectly used the data protection act to hide the amounts paid out in compensation.

Only 23 per cent of claims make it to court and several forces succeeded in keeping 100 per cent out of court. This is either good or bad news depending on one’s point of view and the exact nature of the claim.

Court is expensive so there is a value-for-money argument in settling cases. But if the claim is a legitimate complaint of police misconduct then there is a public interest in knowing the details so that any systemic problems can be identified and fixed. If every allegation is brushed under the carpet and the claimants paid to keep silent, then problems aren’t known and can’t be fixed.

I would be interested to hear from anyone who has brought a claim against the police to know if the force required a confidentiality agreement to be signed before agreeing to pay out.


Police forces which failed to respond to the FOIA request

South Yorkshire Police
West Yorkshire Police
Hertfordshire Constabulary
Humberside Police
Leicestershire Constabulary
Nottinghamshire Police
Surrey Police

Kent County Constabulary responded but said “we do not at present collect or collate this information.”
Dorest Police said: “It’s a bit of a mess really, the numbers don’t add up.”

Report on Met Police shooting published

Thursday, November 8th, 2007

The Stockwell 1 report by the Independent Police Complaints Commission has finally been published today, more than two years after the Metropolitan Police shot dead innocent Brazilian Jean Charles de Menezes on 22 July 2005. The delay is a result of the antiquated belief manifest in the English legal system that the only way to have a fair trial is to keep the public utterly ignorant, even about matters vital to the well-being of society. Until the trial had concluded the report could not be disclosed.

Even the chairman of the Independent Police Complaints Commission has voiced his dismay at the length of time the report had to be withheld from the public. He said in a statement today:

“Our investigation was completed within six months and we share the frustration that it was not possible to conclude the legal processes more quickly.This is not just something that afflicted the Stockwell case. It happens in other less high profile cases which are nonetheless just as painful for the families and officers involved.”

Chair Nick Hardwick also responds to the belief of some politicians, such as London Mayor Ken Livingstone, that the police should not be held accountable for their actions.

“Let me be clear what the trial was not about. It was not about the split second decisions that the firearms officers had to make when they confronted Jean Charles de Menezes in that tube train – nor indeed just about the death of Jean Charles de Menezes himself, terrible though that was.

The questions the trial did address and indeed the ones the public were asking in the aftermath of the incident were these:

‘If they thought he might have a bomb, why was he allowed twice to get on a bus and then on the tube? If they thought he didn’t have a bomb, why did they shoot him?’