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Artillery Row

The Facebook police

New policing guidelines are wholly ineffective

On a hot Sunday morning in July, a police van pulls into a quiet English street and parks on the grass verge in the shade of a tree. Three officers, already sweating in their uniforms and stab vests, lumber into the neat, block-paved driveway of a domestic dwelling. Something is going down in this unremarkable corner of suburbia. All that is missing is the overhead helicopter and SO19 in position on the rooftops. The police gather on the porch and ring the bell. There is no need to be kicking down doors over a Facebook post.

They are here to investigate the image of a trans flag reimagined as a swastika and posted in a debating forum on social media. The homeowner, or suspect, is not the originator of the offending image — it’s been reposted thousands of times and even made an appearance on GB News — but this small detail does not trouble the officers.  A crime has been committed. Section 127 of the Communications Act, to be precise, citing a definition from a different act, entirely. 

They remind the suspect that this is their third visit, having previously intervened pursuant to a joke about Tom Daley’s knitting, and the reposting of a Hitler in a bunker meme. The meme has been doing the rounds since the late noughties but this is immaterial to the police officers who are keen to exercise their powers of Three Strikes and You’re Out.

The cops produce a pen and a pre-written piece of paper. It’s a Community Resolution Order which, once signed, will remove an otherwise inevitable prosecution under Section 127 of the Community Act. Again, they get the definition hopelessly wrong. 

Then, with shades of Del Boy Trotter, the Poundland shakedown begins. For the bargain price of sixty quid, the police can downgrade the crime to a non-crime. Sixty quid is cheap at half the price and for that the suspect gets to attend a Community Awareness Course. They do not say whether lunch is provided but do promise that it will give the suspect a mental toolbox that will enable him to keep out of trouble in the future. One suggestion is to have comments and memes signed off by a neighbour before posting.

“I’m not going to do that. I’m a grown man,” says the suspect, who is in his fifties and has done three tours in combat zones.

“Its the only way to avoid prosecution,” say the police, who look like they are barely old enough to trim their own toe nails.

“Does the course check my thinking?” Asks the suspect.

“It will reeducate you.”

This happened three years after my own run in with the police over retweeting a feminist limerick. The High Court compared the actions of Humberside Police to the Stasi, the Cheka and The Gestapo, which is much like a health authority being told it is run by Josef Mengele, Harold Shipman and Beverley Allitt. 

In a sane world, nothing remotely similar should ever happen again. And yet these Facebook police either failed to get the memo or were entirely unconcerned about consequences. This level of ignorance, arrogance and contempt, played out in broad daylight and in full view of the cameras, does not happen by accident.

One imagines that the primary task of a government funded quango called the College of Policing is to educate the police in the lawful exercise of powers, especially following the unprecedented breach of Human Rights exercised by Humberside. However, College grandees have been so busy attending intersectionality conferences and wishing all the homophobes a spectacularly uncomfortable Pride Month that it took them a full eight months to get round to correcting their unlawful guidance. 

I’ve read the guidance. It’s dreadful

Finally published last week to a song and dance about policing streets instead of tweets, the new guidance was hailed by the press as a victory for free speech and common sense.  Richard Tice took a similar view on TalkTV and was visibly taken aback by my distinct lack of enthusiasm. The trouble is, I’ve read the guidance. It’s dreadful.

For starters, the College presents the Court of Appeal judgment  as if it were a score card in a boxing match, with Miller finishing on two points and The College finishing on three. To the judicially illiterate, this is a technical knock-out to them. The College has also sufficiently amended the guidance to avoid being hauled back to Court for contempt, with terms such as  “victim” and “suspect” replaced with less criminal terms. The requirement for evidence-free recording has also been removed, meaning that the College will be able to say, “Nothing to do with us, Guv”, the next time the police intervene when a man a wearing conspicuously straight shirt in an overtly gay area is interviewed about adding to risk of a future rainbow genocide.

In reality, all that’s changed is the language. The College has swapped the label marked jam with one that says strawberry preserves and hopes we fools don’t notice. For instance, the requirement for the police to record non crime hate incidents based on the perceived hurt of the victim has been replaced by the National Standard for Incident Recording (NSIR) which directs the police to record where “a single distinct event or occurrence disturbs an individual, group or community … or causes them concern.” The difference is barely visible under a microscope. 

The undertaking to protect debate from sanction is like the crook who steals your pay packet and then tosses you a fiver to buy a bag of chips. People live their lives in the pub and online, not by the rules of the Oxford Union. This is guidance as written by lawyers and ideologues. 

Caveats around proportionality and Article 10 exist primarily for the purpose of enabling a competent silk to mount a credible defence in the event of future litigation, whilst the ideologues have secured enough contradictory instruction to ensure that the police continue to inflict NCHIs on as many ideologically difficult members of the public as is possible. 

The strategy is working. This Sunday, the women’s rights activist Posie Parker was visited at her home by Wiltshire Police and informed that she had committed a hate crime for using her YouTube channel to unduly criticise paedophiles. The College must be hugging itself with glee. 

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