Today, I should have been posting about the Walsall Police Open Day event. I should have been, but I’m not. I’ll leave that to other local bloggers. I’m afraid the local police, or at least their management, have done something that’s lost them a huge amount of support in the online community.
The Plastic Hippo has covered it brilliantly and less wordily than me. Read his account, too, please.
As a young man, I was given to travelling on the train to Birmingham on a Saturday. Sometimes, I’d go on my own, other times, I’d be with a companion or two. In the late 1980s, society was a wee bit different. After years of Thatcher feeding and bolstering what she clearly regarded as her own private army, the boys in blue were like Bluebell and Jessie’s litter: a gang of state sponsored trained attack dogs used to menace those of considered dubious intent. The rozzers had practised years of cracking heads: football hooligans, miners, steelworkers, environmental campaigners and anyone who dared gather to protest. Most of the police had an outright belief that they were untouchable, and mostly they were.
This grey Saturday, I was with an asian companion, who happened to be female. It was match day, and the train was rammed. For some reason, the creaky old suburban EMU ground to a halt at Witton and we were all ordered out. Hanging back to let the football guys out, my companion an I emerged blinking in the daylight. All of a sudden I was grabbed bodily around the waist and neck, and thrown up against the train. A leather gloved hand covered my mouth, I felt a knee at my back and something hard banged the side of the train beside my head.
‘Is the wog yours?’
I don’t know why we were roughed over particularly. It went on for about ten minutes. We were both threatened, had our bags tipped out and were roughly searched. All the time there was racist, aggressive language. The three coppers who saw harassing a couple of youngsters as more important than herding football fans laughed as they walked off. None had numbers on their uniforms.
That experience stayed with me for years. As a left-winger, my contact with Her Majesty’s finest was always with a tinge of fear. I saw fellow protesters roughed over, beaten, abused. I saw times when coppers wouldn’t do their job. I grew to treat them not as law upholders, but as aggressive, menacing thugs with not much up top and a fondness for violence. I got used to being hassled and searched in the city.
Times, however, changed. The police came under more and more scrutiny. They lost respect. The West Midlands Serious Crime Squad was disbanded. Training got better. Pro-active chief constables weeded out the worst thugs, and controlled the bullies as best they could. I no longer feared the police, but I still treated them with deep suspicion.
As I started this blog, over three years ago now, my relationship with the police changed a little, gradually. Through social media, I got used to Walsall’s tweeting coppers, and police from the West Midlands generally. I learned, through their short updates, that coppers were working people too. I gleaned that, actually, people like Mark Payne were thoughtful, helpful guys with genuine love and concern for their communities. I felt things had changed.
I knew this to be the case as time progressed; Mark Payne, Sgt John De Hayes, Marcus Beale, PC Richard Stanley and press offers Jo Hunt and Gina Lycett were very helpful. I knew I could approach most of these people for information about events in my area, and get a statement. Mark Payne in particular helped get the truth out with the Walsall Wood Crucifixion incident, when rumour was running wild. Similarly, during the dreadful Daisy Myring murder enquiry, the police were communicative and helpful, and regarded this blog as a significant information outlet. Officers have even helped, and been responsive under criticism. Marcus Beale’s help for fallen cyclist and friend Aiden MacHaffie happened because I challenged Marcus on Twitter one Sunday morning, and he was good to his word. A gentleman, honourable and well intentioned.
This was a police force that was reactive, understanding and compassionate. Richard Stanley’s unasked for intervention when I was nearly wiped out by a bad driver was a case in point. I grew to like these people, keenly read their blogs and tweets, and became interested in their lives and day to day work. Such a long way from being thrown against a train with a hand on my mouth, terrified, listening to thugs racially abuse an innocent young woman.
It’s therefore with some sadness that I note the wind, in Walsall at least, has changed. One of the best tweeting coppers – Sgt John De Hayes – has found himself at the centre of a media brouhaha for ostensibly tweeting a picture of a recovered rifle, a war-relic received locally. It wasn’t involved in a crime and was merely of historic interest. However, this storm in an upturned helmet seems to belie something more sinister.
I have, for a while now, been detecting a change in the way Walsall Police use social media. Where formerly, officers were friendly, unguarded and honest, tweets now seem strictly formal, or meaningless fluff. The official line has gone from one of conversation and engagement to one of relentlessly broadcasting good news and pointless, feel good, cherry picked statistics. In short, they’ve turned into the blue serge-encased policing speaking clock, with all the personality of a truncheon.
Nowhere is this policy more evident than in the account of Superintendent Keith Fraser, with whom I’ve been trying to reason for some five weeks over his use of statistics. Like all modern, media aware managers, the Superintendent has been clearly trained to ignore, or avoid anything controversial, and just operates in broadcast mode. When he tweets statisticss, as he does most Fridays, he does so without context, without caveat or qualification. I’ve repeatedly asked him to show us his source data, so we can see what he’s referring to. Finally, after 5 weeks of challenging, I had contact last Friday evening from the press unit asking me what I wanted, even though I’d made this repeatedly clear.
In short, Superintendent, if you’re going to spread the good news via statistics, they need to be consistent, and we need to know what you’re talking about and how the numbers have been gathered. For asking, this does not make me a troublemaker, agitator or irritant: I am a member of the public, like many others, with some training in mathematics and statistics. Many of us know bullshit when we see it.
It’s simple. publish the paperwork you’re quoting as open data, so we can inspect it. We’re intelligent people, we can make sense of it.
I have noted my difficulty in obtaining statements from the same officer elsewhere.
This good-news-at-any-time policy seems to be extending to pressuring the lower orders. Several officers have disappeared from social media. Others, who were regulars, now only make occasional appearances. The one guy who used twitter to the best extent – Sgt John De Hayes – has found himself publicly denigrated by press release and a campaign of Chinese whispers, clearly in an attempt to bring him under closer control.
John, you’ll remember, supplied continuous updates from the recent BOAK fire in Walsall, again helping to defuse panic, quash rumour and keep us informed. When I tweeted Keith Fraser publicly praising John, I was never acknowledged.
At the time when the recent furore broke out, John was involved in the #coverforGMP campaign, and tweeted about it extensively This is a voluntary campaign across the country whereby off duty officers offer to cover Greater Manchester Police duties while the Manchester force can attend the funerals of their two fallen officers. This is and act of compassion and humanity I think we call all respect. All of us, it would seem, apart from the bosses at Walsall who appear to have taken a dim view.
John De Hayes has been demoted from Acting Inspector back to Sergeant, had his name blackened by dodgy and conflicting press releases, and been dragged through the press by inaccurate reports claiming both he and his twitter account were suspended. John is still at work and he’s just taken his twitter account private so he can choose who’s following him. Why a matter that should have been kept private has been dragged out into the public by Walsall Police is a mystery. One can only imagine it’s to blacken the offer’s name, a dirty and unpleasant tactic.
This isn’t the first time John has felt pressure from above over his twitter account.
Walsall Police need a valid social media policy, which they don’t seem to have, and they also need someone at the top who understands Twitter and Facebook, let alone statistics and how to quote them without being misleading. Walsall, and West Midlands in general, exemplified the use of such tools for several years – just look at the Solihull Police feed for the same thing executed with wit, warmth and aplomb.
The upshot is this: I’m sure I speak for most of the online community locally in saying we support Sergeant John De Hayes, and stand shoulder to shoulder with him to support an honest, upstanding officer who has worked hard to put a human face to the police, and changed many minds – including mine.
Walsall Police have lost the plot, and are travelling backwards. Instead of throwing the public up against the train with a hand over their mouth, it now seems it’s their own officers with a truncheon in the knackers.
Mind how you go, now.