Police officers will not record “frivolous” allegations of offensive speech in a shake-up of how crimes are logged by forces.
Policing minister Chris Philp said officers are “not the thought police” and being rude or insulting is not a “police matter” as he announced Government plans coming into force next month which could see rows with neighbours and Twitter spats not logged as offences.
The reforms extend to so-called Home Office counting rules on how police record reported incidents, said to be in a bid to cut “unnecessary red tape” and free up officers to spend more time investigating crime.
As part of efforts to “clear away obstacles” to tackling crime, Mr Philp also said police officers should not be expected to deal with mental health cases and act as a “stop gap” for other agencies.
In a speech at the Law Society of England and Wales offices in central London on Thursday, he said: “We’re going to make clear that frivolous allegations of malicious communications should not be recorded as a criminal offence unless the criminal threshold has clearly been met.
“Officers are not the thought police and where something is reported that doesn’t meet the criminal threshold, we don’t want that to be investigated or reported as a crime. We don’t want to waste police time on that kind of thing.”
Earlier, the minister admitted there is more that could be done to follow up on reported crimes but said the bureaucracy involved in recording certain incidents is “wasting” police time.
The move follows recommendations from the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) which said a review of productivity estimated 443,000 officer hours are spent filling in forms and dealing with unnecessary administrative tasks, the equivalent to attending 220,000 domestic abuse incidents or 270,000 burglaries.
It comes after police were given new legal guidance on how to record hate incidents which do not involve a crime so officers are “prioritising the freedom of expression”, signalling a shift from recommendations made in the 1999 Macpherson report, in the wake of the racist murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence, which said the Home Office and police needed a “comprehensive system of reporting and recording all racist incidents and crimes”.
The Home Office said the changes will save police time by no longer recording cases of messages that may offend someone or where a public disturbance occurred but has been resolved.
But this will require sign-off by a supervisor, such as a police sergeant.
Officers should be on the streets investigating crimes such as burglary rather than investigating comments made online, the department said.
Police will also be able to consider if such issues should be dealt with by social media companies instead.
But the Home Office insisted police will continue to pursue all offences involved.
The reforms will also make it easier to cancel the recording of a crime where there is enough evidence none was committed, though such a move would again require the appropriate sign-off, the department said.
The changes will mean the number of crimes recorded by police – who have seen sharp rises in reports of incidents like sex assaults, stalking, fraud and violence – could fall.
But ministers said the England and Wales crime survey, which questions people about their experience of offending, will not be affected. The survey’s latest findings suggest the overall crime rate has declined.
Police chiefs have welcomed the changes in the wake of previous concerns that the way offences are recorded could be inflating crime rates.
But campaigners and critics may ask if the reforms could risk potential crimes not being properly investigated or fail to accurately record crime rates and lead to artificially low figures.
Dame Vera Baird, the former victims’ commissioner, said police need to tread carefully, reportedly telling the Daily Telegraph: “It’s quite dangerous to be messing with the accepted way of recording crime unless there is a real fundamental justification for it.”
Andy Marsh, chief executive of the College of Policing, said officers and staff “must be able to maintain high standards and properly record and investigate reported crimes whilst not becoming bogged down in unnecessary bureaucracy”.
Speaking for the first time since becoming NPCC chairman, Gavin Stephenson said: “Police officers must be totally focused on keeping people safe and ensuring they feel safe.
“We want to provide the best possible policing to the public and the work of the police productivity review is aimed at removing barriers and improving effectiveness.”