Police U-Turn on PIN Issued to Journalist Highlights the Problem of “Harassment Warnings”

From the Croydon Advertiser:

THE Metropolitan Police has revoked a harassment warning given to a Croydon Advertiser journalist for questioning a convicted fraudster.

Chief reporter Gareth Davies was issued with a Police Information Notice (PIN) in March 2014 while investigating Neelam Desai’s alleged involvement in a dating website scam in which men were conned out of tens of thousands of pounds.

The Met said his attempts to question Desai – calling at her house once and sending her a politely-worded email – “went beyond what was reasonable” and the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) later upheld that decision.

Mr Davies, backed by publisher Local World then new owner Trinity Mirror, challenged the ruling and, earlier this year, a High Court judge granted permission for a judicial review.

…A Trinity Mirror spokesperson said: …”The Police and IPCC will also pay most of the legal costs of the proceedings and will write to the College of Policing to request a review of the guidance on using PINs with journalists.”

The police u-turn here came just days before the judicial review was due to take place. It seems to me that the police invoking the College of Policing at this late date is opportunistic: it is an attempt to suggest that the fiasco was due to unclear guidance rather than obviously flawed decision-making. Why didn’t the Met seek clarification back in 2014?

The decision also looks bad for the IPCC: they confirmed that the police had acted properly in issuing the PIN, only to now see the original decision that they approved being repudiated by those who made it. That hardly inspires confidence in the IPCC’s competence and true independence.

One small consolation from this wretched affair is that the Metropolitan Police were able to clarify a common misconception about PINs:

Scotland Yard said: “When a harassment warning letter is issued, there is also no implication that the alleged harassment has taken place.”

As I wrote previously, that was met with some surprise; many people are under the impression that such “warnings” at the very least reflect the considered opinion of professional law-enforcement officers that criminal conduct has occurred, and at worst that they amount to the same thing as a police caution, in which an offence is admitted. But in fact, PINs merely warn individuals that alleged conduct may amount to an offence if it continues. It is shockingly easy for a vexatious complainant to get an PIN issued to someone, and then to wave it around like some kind of trophy (see below for my experience of this).

Part of the problem is that police themselves often don’t understand how PINs are supposed to work: last year, I got Wiltshire Police to delete a highly misleading website on the subject, and police are known to talk of a PIN being “breached” despite such documents being informal and having no legal force. The issue thus goes much deeper than “using PINs with journalists”.

This is what the UK Parliament website has to say on the subject:

Constituents sometimes ask about the status of Police Information Notices (PINs) which the police may issue where there are allegations of harassment. These notices (sometimes called Harassment Warning Notices) are not covered by legislation, and don’t themselves constitute any kind of formal legal action.

…Because signing a Police Information Notice does not mean admitting any wrongdoing, there is no right of appeal. If a person is unhappy about the fact that the warning was issued, he or she could complain to the police force concerned.

This was why I was unsure whether Davies’s judicial review would succeed: the Met could have argued that the PIN cannot be revoked because there is nothing to revoke.

My interest: Dennis Rice aka Tabloid Troll

This is of some concern to me, having received a PIN myself in 2014 (from Thames Valley Police) following a malicious complaint by online troll Dennis Rice, who had been subjecting me to unpleasantness as “TabloidTroll” over an extended period from 2012-14 (he’s recently started up again, this time under his own name). Rice is actually a professional journalist himself, but his behaviour had nothing to do with how he makes his living: he was pursuing a private vendetta after I agreed with evidence that unmasked his sockpuppeting and trolling.

Rice actually received two warnings himself from police about his conduct towards me, in 2013 and 2014 – I didn’t make a big deal about this, as my goal was to get him to change his behaviour, and I did not want to misrepresent police intervention as confirming criminality (just as lack of police action would not have amounted to an exoneration). It was shortly after the second of these warning that he closed down his @tabloidtroll Twitter account.

A few weeks later, Rice retaliated by making his own complaint, claiming to have received an anonymous threatening message sent by me. Of course, I had not done this – that sort of thing is beneath me, and such a course of action would have been against my own best interests, given that the police were starting to take complaints against Rice seriously. Further, Rice has a history of claiming to have received an anonymous threat after online alteractions.

Yet a PIN was issued to me – and it didn’t even explain what I was supposed to have done (the specific allegation was only put to me weeks later). Rice now of course boasts that I have “a police warning for trolling and harassment”,  even though he must know what a PIN really is. All of this is discussed in full here.

I later made a complaint to Thames Valley Police, and initially ran up against the problem discussed above, that a PIN supposedly cannot be rescinded because it has no legal basis. I then patiently explained that it can still be the case that a PIN was issued incorrectly, and that this was the pertinent point. This elicited the obtuse police response that no officer had committed a disciplinary offence, which is where matters have been left.

Rice just a few weeks ago attempted a new complaint, against both myself and the author Peter Jukes, after Peter drew attention to new goading comments that Rice had emailed to him. However, this has now been dropped; according to the officer assigned to the case “Mr Rice has failed to return my emails or provide me any evidence of an offence”. More on that here.

(Footnote: To anticipate one objection to the above from Rice: After he received his second police warning, he wrote to me boasting that the police had apologised to him for acting on “false information” from me. I followed this up with police, who explained that the address I had given them for Rice had been out of date. Presumably this error caused some embarrassment to Rice when police showed up there, but the “apology” had nothing to do with the substance of my complaint.)

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