Archive for December, 2009

Police and the Media

I tweeted about an interesting article in the Guardian last week, . The thrust of the argument is that police forces are pumping out PR based press releases, which papers print unedited due to lack of resources. Police are therefore writing their own headlines, and not telling the public about crime. Using my newly acquired media monitoring skills, I noticed that this link had created a huge amount of interest, so I thought it might be useful to give people a personal insight into the relationship between the police and the media.

Firstly, it is right to state that society in general would be a worse place without journalists, both local and national. The role they perform in holding public authorities to account is crucial to a democracy, and as we have seen with the recent MP’s expenses debate, they can foster change on a grand scale. I would not want to live in a world where the media is supressed or controlled. Although nobody likes to be caught out or embarrassed by the media, it beats the alternative where public bodies do what they want without fear of exposure.

Although I now run the press office for West Midlands Police, I have spent most of my career as a Detective. I have investigated murders, rapes, serious violence, taken guns off the street and dismantled drug rings. I am therefore well placed to offer a rounded view on the police relationship to the media.

I have first hand experience of working with the media at the coal face  with varied results. For example, I used a newspaper appeal to trace a crucial witness to a murder, and I have also found the media to be really accommodating when there are important messages that we need to get out to the public. I have also found myself on numerous occasions having fairly heated disagreements with journalists when they want to publish stories that would have a detrimental impact on live investigations.

I have always struggled with the concept of a journalist insisting they want to publish a story, when the police are telling them that doing so would make it more difficult to either arrest or convict the offender. My instincts as a police officer are all about getting the bad guy locked up, whereas journalistic instincts tend to be to get the story out before another media outlet. This is often the cause of friction between police and media.

In the time that I have been in the press office (approaching 18 months) there has been a marked change in the media world. There are many fewer journalists, and less local papers. Although the media are still an important part of our communications plans, we now place greater emphasis than before on local communications, delivered by way of officers contacts in the community, newsletters, local meetings and with web based communications. This is not because we are trying to provide less information to the public, just a recognition of the changing landscape.

One of the assertions in the Guardian article is that police do not tell people about crime. I would argue that there is more information available than ever before. If you click on this link and type in your postcode, all of the information about crime in your neighbourhood is available at the touch of a button. Even in the halcyon days to which the reporter refers, there was never this amount of information available, so it is a little unfair to suggest we are hiding crimes. What I think the article means is that we are not giving it to journalists in the way they would like to receive it.

In my current role, I have daily conversations with a wide range of journalists. They are generally easy to get along with, and we have good relationships with most local papers. There are clearly competing demands and occasional fall outs over stories, but on the whole the relationship is positive. Often queries from journalists will make us look again at an issue and ask whether we have actually done the right thing. Where we haven’t I encourage officers to say so, and put it right. This seems to me to be a quite healthy relationship, and one that I encourage.

It is not our role to fill the newspapers with stories. We will issue a press release if there is a policing purpose behind it, for example, we want public help to identify an offender, or want to warn the public about a specific crime type which they can guard against.  We will also issue press releases where there is good news to report, so that the public get a balanced view, and are not left afraid to go out at night.

The relationship between police and the media will continue to evolve. I remain optimistic that the traditions of policing and journalism can continue to co-exist for the good of everybody, and I will continue to look forward my local paper every week.


Another day, another report

I have just managed to fight my way out from under the pile of reports published about policing in the last few days. I know that crime will be a key battleground in the next election, but at least give us a chance to read the last report before releasing the next one!

The report by Jan Berry  ‘Reducing Bureaucracy in Policing‘ is however particularly timely. The familiar refrain from the public is that there are not enough Bobbies on the Beat because they are all in police stations filling out forms. As an active police officer for the past fifteen years, I have a great deal of sympathy with that view. I can assure you that police officers do not join to fill out forms, nor do they enjoy it. Police officers want to be free to police, to make common sense judgements at incidents, and target real criminals. There is no greater feeling for officers than locking up a criminal at the scene of a crime, or following an operation.

Officers do not want to be arresting children for playground fights, or neighbours involved in disputes with each other, but previous centrally imposed performance regimes have driven them to do so. We pay our police officers to be out in the community, tackling crime and anti-social behaviour, not to sit in stations completing forms. They should be out, that this where they want to be and it is where the public wants them.

Jan Berry’s report sets out how she thinks police officers ought to be freed up to do more pro-active policing. Jan is the former head of the Police Federation, representing the views of officers up to Chief Inspector rank, so she is well placed to understand the frustrations felt by cops, and the public.

In West Midlands Police we have been one of the pilot forces for ‘community resolutions’. This effectively allows officers to use their judgement to make decisions at the scene of some lower level crimes, and together with the victim agree on a suitable remedy. So if a gang of kids break your window, you can ask them to apologise and pay for it, rather than enter into the criminal justice system. So far we have carried out 8000 of these types of resolutions, and the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. Police officers are allowed to use their professional judgement (or common sense as it is more commonly known,) based on the full circumstances of the case, not on narrow performance objectives.

I have done a lot of work around community resolutions, and I really think they have  merit. Providing they are used properly, and on appropriate crimes, it gives the victim what they want, doesn’t criminalise children or decent people for ‘moments of madness’, and frees up the police and criminal justice system to focus on more serious criminality.

Have a look at this clip which sets out how they work, and let me know what you think.


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