Policing matters at the Supreme Court

Today brings the start of three days of policing matters at the Supreme Court:

  • R (on the application of Catt) (Respondent) v Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis and another (Appellants)
  • R (on the application of T) (Respondent) v Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis (Appellant)

Both cases concern the right to the protection of citizens’ privacy, notably regarding the length of the time certain matters remain part of police records.

The first case looks at whether the retention by police of data relating to an individual’s involvement in one or more protests was lawful in terms of art.8 ECHR.

The second case is a judicial review on whether the retention by police of information relating to a letter issued to the respondent following an allegation of harassment was lawful in terms of art.8 ECHR.

The T case
Thankfully, T remains anonymous (anonymity order).

I wonder if the case of T may be an example of habitual sexism or even misogyny exercised by police (thereby likely merely reflecting the general state of affairs in the country, however). It is a case of “he says she says” between two neighbours, and of police siding with the male.

T and a neighbour had been bitching back and forth, which included a lot of name-calling. T made various complaints to the anti-social behaviour team. The neighbour eventually did as well, but he also contacted the police who then applied its own assessment of the case and ran with it, siding with the male, even though it was a “he said she said” case.

Everything else seems to stem from the simple fact that police instantly sided with the male and continued to pursue the female without the slightest interest in hearing her side of the story.

It sounds like T was living on her own. I am pretty sure that police would not have pursued T in this manner, had she been a married woman, “properly” living with a husband (adhering to Victorian values). It also would have meant that the husband could have spoken out on the matter as well. The neighbour had a friend visiting occasionally, who was also involved in the name-calling back and forth.

Police in England & Wales are rapidly becoming a pretty scary organisation, going after soft targets such as people who steal a sandwich or are crime victims, hence emotionally and/or financially vulnerable, as well as people police officers personally feel should be taught a lesson and taken down a notch or two if police officers feel that someone does not know what they see as her or his proper station in life (assuming that this was not the case in the past, as I have only been in the country for ten years). I find that a worrisome development and it’s good that there are people out there who have the guts to monitor and when necessary fight this.

Of course, cases of ordinary policing going well rarely make headlines. I am very aware of that too.

As it turns out, I am not the only one who finds this a smelly case of policing. In the High Court Appeal, Mr Justice Eady wrote “It does not seem that the police were entirely neutral in the matter.” and goes on to explain why. I am grateful for him having pointed this out explicitly.

The above, however, is not what this court case is about, legally speaking. T, I think, would have felt that she is fighting for her life, fighting to keep out of harm’s way (police potentially – accidentally of otherwise – victimising her, essentially setting her up in case any events happen further down the road). I find this a truly scary aspect of English policing, though it appears to have to do with a major weakness in police practice in combination with some of the current legislation (the Prevention of Harassment Act 1997), which can make victims vulnerable instead of protecting them. (I find it scary because ill-meaning individuals can shockingly easily exploit this combination.)

Note, however, that on 23 January 2013, police had already decided that the record pertaining to T could be expunged. The matter was already in the courts then and continued to be pursued because of the importance of the issues that are at stake. (The courts have ruled before that police were going overboard with data retention and were breaking the law. New legislation was in the works, so no steps were taken, but I don’t know if the new legislation has meanwhile actually materialised.)

I presume that the record has indeed been expunged by now. If not, it could also endanger T’s employment prospects and volunteering opportunities (if it got into a so-called ECRC, in accordance with s.113B(4) of the Police Act 1997). Whether it might or not would apparently depend on the views of the individual (chief) officer who dealt with the case.

You’ll probably be astonished to learn that the case was about people blowing kisses, tut-tutting, and calling each other black bitch and faggot.

The Catt case

The Catt case appears to be about a man who was 87 years old on 9 February 2012 and has not engaged in any criminal behaviour but is politically active and has been for a long time. He challenges the police as to whether it is allowed to retain data about his presence at lawful political protests and demonstrations (notably against a particular US arms manufacturer with a business and factory in the UK) in the National Domestic Extremism Database.

Here, a problem for police officers is that they a) are used to expecting the worst and b) have to expect the worst. That means that there is often little room for reasonability and proportionality. in addition, it can be impractical to have to sort through a great deal of material and filter some out and keep some, on a person by person basis. It is more practical to keep it all, but it risks criminalising an entire population and violates people’s human rights.

That is not what this case is about, however. It sounds like data on Mr Catt were being collected intentionally.