Long arm of the law takes one step forward – and another one back

If policemen really do have big feet, we’ve seen one giant size 12 step forward and another one back this week.

One of my proudest achievements as a news editor was a name and shame campaign we ran at The Bath Chronicle more than a decade ago, where we went out of our way to cover every single drink-drive court case in the run-up to Christmas.

I’ve always felt that drink-driving was a particularly abhorrent offence, turning a car into a weapon at the hands of a motorist who at the very least is guilty of criminal complacency.

We took a fair bit of stick – particularly when we put a very popular vet on the front page – but the figures suggested our campaign had been a real deterrent.

Last Christmas, we tried to persuade Avon and Somerset police to follow the example of some other forces by releasing the names and addresses of everyone testing positive for drink-driving over the festive period.

They weren’t ready to do it then, or during their summer drink-driving initiative this year.

But now, as the Chronicle reports, the force has finally got its ducks – and its guts – in a row.

I was hugely pleased to see an email from the police confirming the temporary policy.

That delight at brave new police thinking didn’t last too long.

Today, Hold the Front Page reports the concern of The Harborough Mail at Leicestershire Constabulary’s decision to wait 11 days before releasing details of four linked sex attacks in its area.

The explanation from the police was as predictable as it is disappointing.

It wanted to “exhaust all other avenues” before turning to the media with an appeal for information and witnesses.

If I had a pound for every time I’d complained to a police press officer about the lateness of such an appeal, about the insulting, illogical lack of imagination of using the media as a last resort, I’d have been able to buy several Leveson-breaching dinners for constabulary contacts.

And if that same payment had been forthcoming every time a press office had sighed sympathetically and blamed the officer in the case, I’d have been able to afford the dessert course as well.

Leaving aside the police’s duty to warn the public about such incidents, what part of delaying information release until memories have faded and the potential story has grown whiskers is supposed to help solve a case?

I understand that there may be times when police don’t want to alert suspects that they’re on the case, and that there are all manner of logistical issues that can get in the way of obtaining CCTV footage.

But police officers need to be trained to regard the media as one of the first places they turn to for help, rather than one of the last.

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