I will not let police be subjected to trial by social media, says Patel

Police officers should not face “trial by social media”, the Home Secretary has said as she backed calls to publish more body-worn video footage of incidents.

In a speech to the annual Police Federation of England and Wales conference, Priti Patel said “transparency is vital” and supported plans to try to counter “highly selective, and misleading, video clips uploaded on to social media”.

She told the audience: “I will not let the police be subjected to trial by social media.

“That’s why I backed the federation’s call for forces to share body-worn video footage to counter highly selective, and misleading, video clips uploaded on to social media.

“I want forces to be more proactive in sharing body-worn video footage to highlight the fantastic work of their officers, to build public confidence, and to correct harmful misinformation circulating online.

“It is critical that we work as a system to ensure that we maintain public confidence in policing, which is vital for victim reporting, intelligence-led policing, and to maintain our treasured model of policing by consent.

“As part of this process, we will be looking carefully at strengthening the system of local community scrutiny and the value of body-worn video, because transparency is vital.”

The federation’s national chairman John Apter claimed officers face “trial by media” on a daily basis.

“My colleagues are being hung out to dry by the media, by some politicians and by so-called, self-proclaimed experts on policing,” he said.

Calling on the Home Secretary for her support, he went on: “We need you to speak out when you see footage of police officers being attacked on social media.

“When we see people reaching for their phone, not to dial 999 for help, but reaching for their phone to film an attack for nothing more than entertainment.

“Social media companies must also take more responsibility and the Government must ensure this happens.

“What kind of society have we become when attacking police officers is seen as nothing more than entertainment, nothing more than a sport?

“Or when selective clips of video are released without context and then those in positions of responsibility who should know better condemn the actions of officers without knowing all the facts.”

There have been a number of cases in the past 18 months where footage of police officers posted on social media has attracted widespread public attention.

In April last year an officer from Lancashire Constabulary was filmed telling a man he would “make something up” to lock him up.

A second incident that month saw a “well-intentioned but ill-informed” officer from South Yorkshire Police wrongly threaten to fine a family for being in their own front garden.

In July footage was widely shared of athlete Bianca Williams and her Portuguese sprinter partner Ricardo dos Santos being stopped while driving in west London.

They were both handcuffed during the incident, and five Met officers are being investigated for possible misconduct.

The Met was also criticised on social media over its handling of a vigil in Clapham, south London, in memory of Sarah Everard in March.

But the force was exonerated when a watchdog found that officers acted proportionately, prompting a backlash at public figures including Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey, who had called for the commissioner to resign.

Turning to the pandemic, Mr Apter described the past year, with officers required to enforce emergency coronavirus restrictions, as “one of the most challenging”, adding: “For the past 15 months we have been required to police in a way that none of us ever expected to when we joined the job.

“We knew it was never going to be easy. But our job was made even harder by the ever-changing rules and regulations.”

Addressing Ms Patel, he said the rules were not always “crystal clear”, adding: “We had officers going out on patrol literally hours after the new regulations were introduced.

“They had often received no detailed briefing because the laws had only just been passed, which meant they were often going out on patrol with no specific detail about what the change meant for policing. There was no discussion about how to deal with the new laws or the new guidance.”

Ms Patel also condemned those who abuse officers, saying: “It’s a cruel irony that while most crimes naturally fell during lockdown, violence and abuse directed at police officers increased.

“You were spat and coughed at by thugs claiming to have the virus.

“Some of you were seriously injured and your vans were set on fire during the despicable events in Bristol earlier this year. Police were bloodied and pelted with bottles in Hyde Park in April.”

She cited “shocking” figures suggesting a “big increase in assaults on police officers”, adding: “This behaviour is grotesque. And I will never accept that it’s simply part of the job. It is an attack on the fabric of our society.

“And every police uniform is worn by a human being who is entitled to dignity and respect.

“The right to protest and speak freely does not include the right to smash up property, or abuse police officers.”