Without an increase in officer levels, the Criminal Prosecution Service’s commitment to tackle hate crime will go unfulfilled, writes Northumbria police and crime commissioner Vera Baird
Director of public prosecutions Alison Saunders announced this week that online hate crime will be treated as seriously as the same crime committed face to face. This is not a change in the law, nor is it any threat to freedom of speech to tackle online what is already criminal elsewhere. The Crown Prosecution Service is updating its policy after a consultation which started in Hate Crime Awareness week last October and has shown concern that deeply damaging abuse is commonplace, especially in our minority communities, apparently without consequences.
Online, ‘echo chamber’ communities reinforce each others extreme views round and round again and victimise others. They use wildly vehement hate language exceeding the ugliest abuse heard in streets, where presumably, CCTV, public disapproval and the likelier reach of the law act as deterrents. Online, bigoted abuse gets wilder with impunity ’keyboard warriors’ write what they like about those they dislike and, on Twitter and Facebook, such bile can go viral within minutes. Recall the hatred poured onto Gina Miller, Stella Creasey, Luciana Berger and Diane Abbott. It is long overdue that its exponents, expats from Lord of the Flies, should face the criminal law.
There is no doubt that big companies such as Facebook and others have a duty to remove offending posts, it should not be down to campaigns by people like Yvette Cooper to deliver a change, these companies have a duty to protect their users and readers. If the problems facing that solution have been their lack of will, lack of resources are likely to be among the problems facing the DPP’s new direction.
But first, a problem for prosecutions is that they require a complaint and usually a complainant but hate crime victims are often too undermined and intimidated by fear of further abuse to speak out. All the harder when mobile devices allow bile to be pinged up at home, at work, or on a bus, surrounding victims with virtual hatred, inflicting deeply personal pain. And people may not know where to go. Given that few forces excel in online public communication, who will assume that they are the experts? Hate crime prosecutions may have hit their highest level but they were still only 15,600 this year and it is unclear how many were online. Police referrals to CPS have actually decreased by nine per cent. Victims’ services are under stress, funded a year at a time by the Ministry of Justice with no increase to address such issues and no security of resources to allow the development of specialist training to encourage reporting.
The DPP’s announcement coincides with a decision by the Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW) which has never counted online crime, to estimate it. Significantly, this estimate literally doubled the figure of criminal offences experienced by the public, in England and Wales last year. The new total is 11.8 million offences, compared to 6.6 million when online crime is disregarded. Hate crime, online fraud, sexting, stalking and harassment, all crimes capable of inflicting deep personal damage, undoubtedly contribute. This is not, however, the figure for online crime which is recorded by the police. The CSEW is a separate national survey of what crime a cross section of the public says it has suffered in the preceding year. Police recording shows significantly less reported/recorded online offending at only 49,904 recorded crimes. (ONS Statistical bulletin – Crime in England and Wales: year ending Mar 2017 published July 2017). This adds to the DPP’s concern that online hate crime has not been taken seriously enough the probability that other equally damaging online offending has not been targeted by law enforcement agencies and is consequently similarly underreported.
Much as the police would like to follow the old saying ‘what gets measured, gets done’ in respect of the CSEW’s new online crime estimate, a Police Federation spokesperson responded to the DPP’s announcement indicating that even her, very welcome, resolve to focus on the proportion of this offending that is hate crime could not be achieved unless police deprioritise other work.
Many forces, including my own in Northumbria, are recruiting volunteers to help with online detection, men and women who work during the week in banking or software development and lend themselves for the public good at the weekend. They supplement the police. They cannot replace the 19,000 officers cut from forces nationwide since 2010 during real terms cuts of over 20 per cent to police budgets. And 5.2 million online crimes a year, on top of 6.6 million offences in the physical world cannot be tackled by volunteers.
The figures now make clear beyond doubt that far from the government’s now trite and palpably wrong mantra that crime is going down, the public’s experience is the opposite. We face a wave of online crime which can only increase if the resources are not put in place to tackle it. Specialist training, high level equipment, intrusive systems and above all the police officers and support staff to make it all work are urgently needed. The level of suffering from online criminality may ultimately move Facebook, Twitter and the other big companies to develop the will to play their part. But, without at least a return to the officer levels and funding on the scale envisaged in our 2017 manifesto, even the DPP’s welcome but relatively modest intention to focus on online hate crime may remain just an intention.
Vera Baird is police and crime commissioner for Northumbria. She tweets at @VeraBaird
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