NORTHUMBRIA Police is one of Britain’s biggest and busiest forces. It employs more than 4,000 officers and has a budget of around £320 million a year. Of that, more than £1 million is spent on its PR department. However, as a freelance journalist based in Northumberland, I am frequently amazed at how peaceful the area is — or at least if you believe the force’s press office. Despite the force now paying to staff its press office on Saturdays and Sundays, there are whole weekends when not one crime is released to the media.
It would be easy to argue that, as a journalist, I only believe in the police being more open because it will help me to do my job. Yes, that’s true.
But there is a more fundamental principle here and that is the age-old tradition of the police using the media to warn the public about what is going on — and to help them catch criminals.
For the last decade, I have campaigned for Northumbria Police to be more open with the public — i.e. the people who pay their wages.
I have collected hundreds of examples of serious crimes that have either not been released to the media or have been released weeks or even months later.
These include rapes, armed robberies and other horrendous attacks that have been kept hidden from the public.
After having a number of meetings with the Chief Constable Michael Craik over the years, I have been repeatedly promised the service would improve.
And yes, the budget for the press office, has been boosted — growing from £620,000 two years ago to the £1 million it now consumes.
There has also been a big increase in the number of stories about how senior officers are cutting crime figures.
Indeed, every time there is a horrific crime — such as a murder or a knife attack — the PR machine kicks into life with a quote from a senior officer stressing how “rare” such crimes are.
As well as stretching credibility, some of these statements are appallingly insensitive.
One chief inspector recently went as far as describing a double murder as an “isolated incident”.
In fact, it would appear they are cutting them so dramatically that one recent weekend saw not one crime worthy of being given out by Northumbria….
Not one incident from Friday afternoon to Monday morning that was worth putting on the tape-recorded telephone “voice-bank” which journalists now have to rely on for their information.
However, through an application under the Freedom of Information Act, I discovered there had been more than 4,800 incidents that weekend, including 161 serious crimes.
So why may you ask were none of these released to the public ?
A good question — and one I’ve been trying to have answered for nearly 10 years now.
In the past, I have taken the liberty of occasionally writing to or telephoning the senior officer concerned.
There then usually followed a reasonable and well-mannered debate in which they would either quote particular “operational reasons” or admit there was no good reason why the public had not been warned.
But now, following the publication of a series of articles in The Guardian, The Times, Press Gazette and other publications, I have been banned from even daring to ask such questions.
In a letter, Deputy Chief Constable David Warcup claims crimes are not released for “operational reasons” and the force does not have to “justify” such decisions.
Needless to say, my correspondence on the issue now goes unanswered.
As a journalist with more than 23 years’ experience — most of it spent specialising in crime — I appreciate there are times when crimes might have to be held back for genuine “operational reasons”.
But there is no way they have to be held back in such huge numbers.
No, the simple truth is that the £1 million spent on Northumbria’s press office is more interested in promoting the image of the force’s senior officers.
My contacts tell me that, as part of that strategy, they have to reduce the “fear of crime” and, if that means telling the public less, then so be it.
Mr Warcup recently defended the force’s expenditure on PR by saying: “Although crime in Northumbria has fallen significantly in the past 10 years, our research shows that the perception of crime has not.
“We have therefore invested a significant amount in services which aim to make sure people have a better understanding of crime in their region.”
In other words, he is spending more money making sure people believe the crime figures they put out.
Ironically, since the publication of my comments, I have been contacted by a number of police contacts who agree with my stance.
Like me, they are not anti-police.
However, as well as being police officers, they are also members of the public — and taxpayers.
And, like me, they believe that, in a democracy, the likes of Mr Warcup should have to justify why the public are kept in the dark about what is happening in their area.
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