Update October 2015: this post resulted in a formal investigation which has confirmed mass data protection violations as well as blatant manipulation of crime statistics by both Police Scotland and Victim Support Scotland.
There is absolutely nothing I can say which will add a meaningful contribution to the debate that has arisen following the absurd and unnecessary deaths of two people in a car crash last week in Stirling. What can anyone possibly say that will make it better?
For those readers outside Scotland, the facts are this: their car skidded off a motorway and down an embankment last Sunday night. A member of the public who witnessed the crash reported it to Police Scotland immediately. For reasons which are yet to be determined, the call was not entered into Police Scotland’s recently centralised computer systems, and therefore, the report was not sent out to local police in the area. And so those two critically injured people sat trapped in that car, down that embankment, for three days. (It seems that the driver may have died on impact, which meant that his girlfriend spent three days alone, hurt, and scared next to his body.) By the time a farmer spotted the car on the periphery of his field on Wednesday morning, she had suffered kidney failure from dehydration on top of her crash injuries. She died in hospital this morning.
Apologies have been made, a Scottish Government review has been commissioned, and politicians have ranted. Lessons, no doubt, will be learnt. Four children will bury their parents.
We have to harden our hearts for a moment, take out the human emotions, and look at this as a failure of data processes. Data was received; data was not input; data was not passed on to the right people; data was not acted on. The system, like any system, was only as good as the people running it.
But that’s why I want to share an experience that I had with Police Scotland. It’s about data being received, input, passed on to the wrong people, and acted on in the wrong way.
I don’t live on the best street around. The root of the problem is that East Renfrewshire Council uses our community as a dumping ground for people who they are legally obliged to house somewhere: drug addicts, people just out of jail, people shortly heading back to jail, the odd supervised nonce. Like most families of our generation, we have no financial hope of ever moving, so we make the best out of it, and work very hard to shield our child from the worst of the things happening often metres away.
The least of our worries is vandalism, either graffiti on the street we live in or specific damage to our close (the “close” is the Scottish term for the communal stairwell in a block of flats). At least twice a year the perspex windows get smashed in the middle of the night by parties unknown. When I spot the damage in the morning, I robotically snap into the procedure I have to do to get it sorted. I have to contact the police on the non-emergency number to report the damage in order to get a police report number. As it’s not an emergency, the police come around at some point during the week, knock on the doors, and ask everyone what we saw (as if we were all sitting up at 3 AM waiting for vandals.) The important thing is that I get that police report number, which I then have to give to East Renfrewshire Council when I contact them to report the damage. The reason I have to do that, as I learned to my great emotional and financial cost, is that if you report damage anywhere in the community to East Renfrewshire Council without a police report number, they charge you – personally – for the damage and the repair. It is a complete disincentive to good citizenship: if you try to keep your community a clean and safe place to raise your child, you will be personally punished and held financially accountable for the problems you report. That’s East Renfrewshire Council for you.
And so that procedure is exactly what I did, as usual, twice in a matter of months last year. The locally based police officers who came out were, as always, incredibly professional and polite. They are always gobsmacked when I explain the absurdity of having to call them out just to get a report number so that I don’t have to personally pay for the damage I have discovered, and agree that this isn’t how a Council should treat people.
But last year, following those two incidents, something strange happened afterwards.
Out of nowhere, I received a call from a charity called Victim Support Scotland. They wanted to know if I was in a safe place to talk; bizarrely, I was sat right here at my desk. They then said that they had been advised by Police Scotland that I had been the victim of a crime. They wanted to know if I was okay. They wanted to know if I needed counselling or help navigating the legal system. They wanted to know if I needed “emotional or practical support”.
I thought it was a wind-up. I didn’t even know what “crime” she was talking about. But it wasn’t – she was deadly serious. As far as this do-gooder was concerned, I was some wounded, cowering animal crying out for help.
It turned out this was because I had reported a broken close window to Police Scotland to get a report number.
I told her exactly what I thought of the call, which she seemed to take as proof of my desperate need to be “helped” to recover from the ordeal of my “victimisation”, and wrapped it up and returned to my workload. Weeks later, I also got to give Police Scotland a piece of my mind when they phoned to follow up on the “quality control” of how my report was handled. I told them I deeply resented being pigeonholed as a “victim of crime” simply for reporting community damage, and furthermore, how that could have only come about by the Police passing records en masse to Victim Support Scotland without any analysis of what those records said or if they even constituted crimes. To his credit, he completely agreed with me and said he would pass that feedback on within the police force.
So that was that. A few months later, the close perspex got smashed again; I reported it again; I got my police report number and reported it to the Council again; and the window got fixed, again.
And Victim Support Scotland contacted me again. This time it was in the form of a letter sent to me in the post which began “Victim Support Scotland have been advised by the police that you were recently the victim of crime. We have tried to make contact with you via telephone but unfortunately without success.” (My tapping “reject” when their unknown number popped up on my mobile was seen as proof of my need to be helped.) The letter than repeated the earlier dialogue of their desperate need to confer “victim” status on me to give me “support” I didn’t need for a “crime” that never happened.
I fired off a furious email in response. (Imagine me doing that.) They wrote back: “The letter sent to you was in no way intended to cause offence or upset to you, but to advise you that the services of Victim Support Scotland were available to you, should you wish to access them. As a result of your comments, I have taken steps to reduce the possibility that you will be contacted again by Victim Support Scotland.”
That told me that they still were not listening. Having told them over and over that I was not a victim and there had been no crime, their response essentially said “we still believe you’re a victim who needs help.”
I have not been contacted by them again, nor do I expect to be after the charity imploded in internal scandal. But the fact remains that I will have to contact the police again when the autumn vandalism season starts up, as it will. I will be left wondering who they are passing my data to, and why, and as a part of what pilot programme or funded service. I’ll be left wondering who is wasting time data dumping my trivial reports of smashed windows in with reports of serious and life-changing criminal acts, and what charity is being given full access to my details in a mission to depict me as something I am not.
And I’ll be left wondering who is not being helped, what data is not being input, what data is not being passed on to the right people, and what data is not being acted on, in the meantime.
That’s all aside from the obvious question about what sort of figure-fudging is going on when everyone who contacts a non-emergency number is classfied as a “victim of crime” and then, rather conveniently, “offered support and assistance”, whether they need it or not.
We live in a nation with a large state sector which is increasingly determined to collect and share as much data about citizens as they possibly can as a means of improving public service provision. But here’s the thing. Data is useless if it’s not passed on to the right people, in the right way – as in Stirling – or if it’s misused by people with an agenda – as in our community.
Maybe it’s time for the Scottish Government to understand that you don’t find needles in haystacks by making the haystacks bigger.
About the author
Heather Burns is a digital law specialist in Glasgow, Scotland. She researches, writes, publishes, consults, and speaks extensively on internet laws and policies which affect the crafts of web design and development. She has been designing and developing web sites since 1997 and has been a professional web site designer since 2007. She holds a postgraduate certification in internet law and policy from the University of Strathclyde. Learn about hiring Heather to write, speak, or consult.