Belfast Telegraph

Publicity is a useful tool for our criminal justice system

By Paul Connolly

It's been a merry old time over at West Midlands Police headquarters. The Birmingham Mail probably had no idea of the hornets' nest it would stir up with a seemingly routine Freedom of Information request to its local force a few months ago.

The paper asked the police to name ten suspects who had been wanted for questioning for more than 10 years. The men had been suspected of offences including murder and attempted murder and had been effectively on the run from justice. For a decade.

Slam dunk, you'd have thought. It's a simple equation: people suspected of serious offences + public might have information that could lead to their arrest = justice in action.

The only missing part of the equation was making public the suspects' identities. Er, no. That's a step too far in the modern world, apparently.

I think it's fair to say the Mail's editor was fairly stunned when West Midlands Police came back refusing to name them, citing data protection and privacy reasons.

Or maybe not. There's little that fails to surprise these days when legislation - or ignorance of it - is used and abused, or when original and sound concepts of law are stretched into something their creators did not intend.

Cue predictable outrage from public, politicians and many legal observers over the "bizarre" stance. In a commendable act of candour, the force's Deputy Chief Constable Dave Thompson has now admitted: "We got this decision wrong."

He added: "We appeared like we were protecting people wanted for serious crimes. The public interest in most of these cases outweighed any privacy duty."

The force is reviewing the decision. Hopefully, West Midlands will end up releasing most of the names (there's no guarantee though).

This is not the first time West Midlands Police has refused to co-operate with the identification of individuals suspected of wrongdoing. Last year Mr Justice Keehan agreed the media could name a number of men subjected to Birmingham city council-inspired injunctions banning them from contacting a teenage girl they were alleged to have subjected to child sexual exploitation.

The ban extended to any girl under 18 such was the apparent risk to children despite an absence of convictions.

West Midlands Police refused to issue details or pictures of the men, saying it was concerned for their safety.

Mr Justice Keehan was commendably sceptical of the police position that the risk of harm was high "based on the fear of reprisal attacks by right wing racist organisations or by members of the local community."

He added: "I was extremely surprised at the stance taken by the police. When I pressed for the factual basis upon which the risk assessment had been made, I was told there was none, the risk was unknown but based on experience, the risk was high. I regret I do not understand that analysis at all."

Police had also argued that there was a risk of members of the public being misidentified as the men and being attacked, the judge said, adding: "I regret that submission makes no sense to me at all.

"The surest way of eradicating or ameliorating the risk of misidentification is ensuring the fullest possible details of each of the (men), including photographs, are made public and given wide coverage by the media."

With thanks to reader David Stewart, apologies are due for two errors: Alliance politician Kieran McCarthy is not a GP.

Our most easterly council is Ards and North Down, not North Down and Ards.

Belfast Telegraph

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