Crime, mugshots and the public interest (updated)

Update: Lancashire Police has now retracted this policy.

Liz Riding, Lancashire Constabulary’s Corporate Communications Manager has reviewed the decision: ‘I have had a further look at this and have decided that we will not be applying the 12 month limited tariff for releasing images on conviction.

‘We are reviewing the demand into our press office, having lost two thirds of our resource over the last few years, and picture requests do add up to some significant demand.

‘However, on reflection, setting a minimum tariff is not acting in accordance with the spirit of which the ACPO guidelines were intended to be interpreted.

‘We will retain the right to look at each request on a case by case basis, and make the appropriate decision based on proportionality, necessity and legitimacy.’

She explained that the ACPO guidelines were open to interpretation: ‘We will not introduce it in Lancashire at this time but we will be reviewing our internal approval processes relating to the release of images.’

More on that turnaround here

[Original post began here] Lancashire Police is no longer issuing photos of criminals jailed for less than 12 months, and as the news got around today that decision did not play well with journalists.

As I am a long-time recipient of their police press office emails (along with the rest of the world, it seems) my inbox was soon pinging with launched broadsides from regional and national hacks, baffled by the decision.

Police photo release email

Lancs Police email announcement

Although, as Liverpool Echo crime reporter John Siddle pointed out, it’s by no means a single issue…

Every police force seems to use different criteria (and often, undisclosed ones at that) for photo releases. There are clear ACPO  checklists for decision makers –

custody2

The proportionality argument covered guidelines leaves it hard to think of many people who wouldn’t be interested if someone from their community were locked up for 12 months or less.

custody3

And the ACPO guidelines also state:

“Post conviction there is likely to be much demand from the media and from the public for information and this may include releasing an image. Forces are
Version 1.2 March 2009 5encouraged to engage with the media and be as open as possible. The release of images at this stage in the criminal justice process could assist with deterring potential criminals and preventing subsequent crime as well as encouraging other victims and witnesses to come forward.”

Anyway, as to the tweet that sparked the original email from the police, I’d imagine it is very much in the public interest, as Rebecca Koncienzcy revealed. And I don’t think she should feel awkward about it at all – at least it’s being discussed now:

However, not all police forces are as reticent with images. I remember well the golden moment  Liverpool Echo crime reporter James Glover (now poacher-turned-gamekeeper for a police press office) asked a force in the Netherlands if they had a headshot of a fugitive Liverpool gangster, found shot to death in their jurisdiction.

Yes, said the police officer, we do have a photo. When the emailed pic arrived it showed the corpse, in the morgue, with a gaping bullet wound to his temple.

A headshot in every sense of the word.

 

 

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About Alison Gow

I'm a journalist, particularly interested in story-telling, networks and digital innovation.
This entry was posted in Journalism, transparency and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Crime, mugshots and the public interest (updated)

  1. Alison, interesting post and one i’ll respond to if you don’t mind, more from a general perspective rather than a journalistic one.

    I guess i fall into the ‘rest of the world’ camp, rather than the slightly self important journalist category. re:

    “As I am a long-time recipient of their police press office emails (along with the rest of the world, it seems)”

    Anyway, i’ve just spent the last hour watching Alain de Botton give an excellent talk to Googlers, an absolute ‘must watch’ for anyone interested or even working in news media: http://goo.gl/KBxltZ is it relevant to this post? i’m not sure i’ll try and shoe it in somewhere.

    So, for me i think the Police have got this just about right, anybody being sentenced for twelve months or less will have committed a fairly low level crime in the grand scheme of things.

    Indeed, given our prison population trajectory appears to be on a permanent upward surge, doubling since 1993, and crime on a whole at its lowest level for decades (lets forget about the fudged figures for this one), we have to deduce that Government(s) is becoming more and more and more punitive, so what!

    This clamour to ‘lock em up’ is mirrored in society and public sentiment, which in turn is influenced by TV, internet and tabloids.

    Our attitudes to people who commit crimes, for what ever reason can be shocking at times, one notable deputy leader of a council near me suggested on twitter ‘locking up all drug addicts and throwing away the key’ for example! are they criminals? it was later deleted.

    What ever happened to rehabilitation? one of the single most important core functions of a prison is to give those who have committed a crime the opportunity to change.

    So, for example a young man gets twelve months for stealing some cable, perhaps harshly, though public opinion will say its far too lenient, ask yourself, is publishing his picture genuinely in the public interest?

    Surely the story should be about how he has reintegrated back into his community, got a job and lives happily ever after isn’t it? (no clicks there then)

    Well no, by now he has been branded a criminal, a thug, a social pariah in his local community, no doubt becoming a ‘outcast’ amongst those self righteous pillars of his local community (re: councillor for example), and that is in part facilitated by local media, and thus the circle continues with the very real proposition of prison for said young man potentially become a regular destination, on the back of what would have been a fairly tame misdemeanor.

    (I get the insight from a criminal justice professional who does attribute some of the mess we are in to the media! sorry)

    Would it be ok to use the picture of the flasher if for example he/she had a mental health issue? would that be public interest?

    So who decides what is and isn’t public interest?

    Lets face it without public interest there is no commercial media, your toast! but the concept of public interest, in some cases, is a construct designed by the media, more out of self interest rather than a public one.

    My hunch is that Google Analytics or in your case Chartbeat is perhaps the greatest single ‘barometer’ in terms of a public interest measure you have, and yes, we all know a picture of a local ‘crim’ goes nuts on social media, its easy clicks right!

    One saving grace is that said criminal, will have the ‘right to be forgotten’ ruling on their side, for the time being, and that is one nemesis journalism cant do too much about, as are Police decisions not to distribute mugshots.

    As for de Botton, somewhere in there he talks about news being the new religion, its about good versus evil, and nothing drives traffic more than ‘baddies’

    Human rights ehh….

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    • Alison Gow says:

      Perhaps my ‘rest of the world’ comment was obscure – to clarify, the mailing list on their media emails is enormous.
      With regards to whether the police are right or not (and clearly they are concerned they have not, as the 12 month policy has now been retracted) I am more concerned about the way ACPO guidelines are interpreted and the transparency of how decisions are reached: 12 months was going to be the limit in Lancs but other forces have different ranges – I know of 5, 3 and 0 year restrictions. That’s not something that should only concern journalists – clear process and policy-shaping from those who uphold the law is vital. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? We all can, given the right information.
      No newsroom bases decisions solely around analytics but of course they inform and shape decisions.
      Taking your take your example, cable stealing wouldn’t be an indictable offence without significant value and jeopardy to public safety.
      There is a difference between the guy fined for stealing copper wire from a building site and the person who rips out rail cables and is convicted of criminal damage, theft, reckless behaviour and (a civil offence, admittedly) trespass. And unless an enormous quality of cable was taken, and serious risk to public safety incurred, and there was a long series of antecedents, I suspect you’re still only looking at a fine.
      However, the man who stole the fence around a railway track to sell it for scrap, thereby allowing a 3-year-old girl to access the line from her garden, and be hit and killed by a train (that’s a genuine example – a case I reported on) forfeited any right not to have his mugshot released by the police in my opinion. Human wrongs.

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