On Police Scotland, data failures, and being labelled a “victim”

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.

22 thoughts on “On Police Scotland, data failures, and being labelled a “victim”

  1. Goodness, where do you start with that?? Incompetence on every level, not to mention the police passing on data without your permission.

    Maybe Private Eye need to know about this?

  2. It’s kind of ‘political correctness’ meets care in the community, whilst both striving to hit government targets. What a ridiculous state the UK is getting itself into. It’s nonsense like this which contributes to real victims of crime not having the will to report crimes. Well done you for keeping on reporting the damage and we can only hope that common sense prevails with the data collection decision makers-but I for one sadly won’t be holding my breath.

  3. Its all part of the world around us slipping away from our grip one problem at the time. The thing that upsets me so much about stuff like this is it would be so easy to make right but people are too selfish and greedy.

  4. Superb writing. Real issue. Not only is it a waste of money but once these things are in place they motor along, generating ‘data’ snarfing up dosh, for ever, or until they are abruptly cut because they have become unfashionable, or they make a really big mistake, like Kids Company. Despite being audited to death, no real scrutiny takes place. I’m thinking of those Islamist hotbed academy schools in Birmingham rated excellent by Ofsted, or the paedophilia in Rotherham.

    Thank you.

    Let’s have a little fantasy. Suppose we could create an agency empowered to make random ‘joined up’ audits. Its agents, dressed in black with shades, would scour the internet, looking for cases like yours. Then the team would leap into action.

    And do what?

    That’s my question.

  5. Reblogged this on arthur~battram… and commented:
    Superb writing.

    Real issue.

    Not only is it a waste of money but once these things are in place they motor along, generating ‘data’ snarfing up dosh, for ever, or until they are abruptly cut because they have become unfashionable, or they make a really big mistake, like Kids Company. Despite being audited to death, no real scrutiny takes place. I’m thinking of those Islamist hotbed academy schools in Birmingham rated excellent by Ofsted, or the paedophilia in Rotherham.

    Thank you.

    Let’s have a little fantasy. Suppose we could create an agency empowered to make random ‘joined up’ audits. Its agents, dressed in black with shades, would scour the internet, looking for cases like yours. Then the team would leap into action.

    And do what?

    That’s my question.

  6. @Plexity – to be fair, if you look at the last two links in the piece, this charity did indeed buckle at the first glance of public scrutiny. I have no doubt that they do noble and vital work to help people *who actually need it*. But as we’ve seen with other charities, they were spending vital time and resources going after someone who didn’t need the help at all. Why? For what aim?

    For what it’s worth, the first thing I ever learned about this charity wasn’t when they contacted me because of a broken close window. It was a good few years before that. I had been having a really, really shitty day. It was shitty enough that I made a couple of tweets venting about it. That night I got a call from someone I had met at a public event who was an authority figure within the organisation. They slurred: “I want to help you. You…you’re a victim. You need help. I maaaay have had a small glass of wine.” (This person had clearly had a lot more than a small glass of wine. It was 9 PM.) They then discussed how they worked for this victim support charity helping crime victims. I replied that yes, I was having a shitty day, but no crime had been committed and I was the victim of someone else’s incompetence, not a malicious criminal act. “No, you’re a victim. I can help you. You need our support.” (By this time the person appeared to be crying.) “I’ll…I’ll call you tomorrow.” Of course they didn’t.

    A very wise woman once told me “the world is full of adult children of alcoholics trying to fix people.” Sometimes you can take out “adult children of”.

  7. This may seem cynical to what has happened. I say we should have this so called data, sent straight to localised police forces, not some central data bank. Oh sorry. Big brother again……..ooh let’s get rid of computers. Then we all actually might start communicating with our mouths again. But we can’t do that can we. That isn’t progress. Like the government say. We.can.always find you with a computer…….?

  8. I got put down as a ‘victim’ in a similar fashion once when I had a camera nicked at a festival. I thought it was ridiculous at the time, especially since the communication didn’t reference the crime at all… and they had to be told more than once I didn’t want their help. Not a bad idea conceptually, but the execution leaves a lot to be desired.

    • I’m guessing your conversations went a bit like mine, essentially:
      “You don’t understand – there hasn’t been a crime committed.”
      “Of course not, dear.”

  9. I might have skipped this post had it not been for the words Police Scotland that caught my eye. Usually, when this happens, my eyes roll and the phrase “What has House done this time?” drifts across.
    It’s a politically correct term to describe in the loosest possible terms a crime statistic if you’re labelled as a victim, I suppose. I can’t imagine they score Brownie points for using any other jargon before the powers-at-be.
    Paradoxically, though, although the term victim is bandied around willy-nilly, often the Police don’t have the resources to and may be reluctant to help as it doesn’t fit in with their Target Culture, therefore certain incidents aren’t recorded as crime. Home breakings and such are recorded, given a number and that is the end of the matter. The big wigs, I imagine, would bleat about budgetary constraints and whatever the PC term for ‘man-power’ disasters might be. Perhaps the personnel crisis might be as bad as they reckon, since the recruitment age has been dropped to 18, and with little to no experience.
    Police Scotland was doomed to failure from the get-go. You can’t police Benbecula and Bearsden in the same way. It’s so striking I can’t believe it needs to be addressed.

    • One of the things I said to the charity was that between reporting community damage and witnessing things like grown adults knocking lumps out of each other in the middle of a street, I typically have to phone the police six to eight times a year. Am I going to have to put up with these letters and phonecalls six times a year, then, and have they got a giant file on me as a repeated police caller and therefore serial “victim”?

      • It wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest. I applaud you for caring about your community for so long, most simply give up long before now. It isn’t right. But even I know think ‘can I really be bothered to sit on hold to 101 for forty minutes and have nothing change as a result?’ Unless the matter is a 999 call I won’t now get involved.

  10. Sounds like a nightmare. The victim support thing is well intended but I take your point. Provided they are being as efficient in handling all cases I probably disagree slightly with your frustration, albeit I suspect this probably isn’t the case (call me a cynic -but!) Share your thoughts on the Stirling crash – absolutely horrific. Thanks for sharing your thought provoking post and big pat on the back for achieving the lauded FP status!!

  11. Yes, yes, yes! All of this. Yes.
    I stayed in Scotland for almost a month, and in my time there we witnessed a man who was beaten with metal and stabbed with a knife. Someone called the police, but they didn’t come as far as I know. The man picked himself off the ground after the attackers left, and he walked away. Infuriating.

  12. In Atlanta it takes forever to get attention when you are victimized. Too many people. The Police are made up of some who do serve and protect and some who are on a power trip. Mostly everyone is so wrapped up in themselves, they have no time to even notice when something horrific happens. So sad!

  13. Hey, y’know, if you discuss it with the other resident’s of your close, and put up a sign, you could set up CCTV in the close to catch the vandals…

    You might find it useful

    • Why do you presume the damage came from outside the close?

      Believe me when I say that when your Council puts neighbours out of the Jeremy Kyle show (and latterly Barlinnie) into your close, and they proceed to make your everyday lives a living hell, you can’t exactly approach the family about installing CCTV to catch whoever it is making everyone’s lives a living hell. If you complain about their reign of terror to the Council they shrug and say “we have a statutory obligation” to house the family, as if it is a civic duty you are obliged to tolerate for the greater good.

      Rinse and repeat, ad nauseam, year after year.

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