04 Jun 2013

Operation Witch-Hunt?

Following a recent Freedom of Information request, it was revealed that the combined cost of Operations Weeting, Elveden and Tuleta since their launch in 2011 stands at an astounding £19.5 million. As the critics become more vociferous in their concerns about the conduct of these operations, the question begs, are police operations evolving into witch-hunts in order to justify their own cost to the public purse?

Despite approximately 112 arrests; only thirty-two individuals have been charged under the three operations including the likes of Rebekah Brookes, Andy Coulson and Glenn Mulcaire whereas a further eleven people have been informed that they will face no further action despite having spent long periods on police bail. Critics such as Neil Wallis, the former executive editor of the News of the World, have raised concerns that these sums would have been better spent on combating more “serious crimes” such as terrorism, murder and paedophilia. The Metropolitan Police have rushed to defend its funding by issuing a statement proclaiming that the linked operations “are extremely difficult and complex” and that the level of resources allocated to the inquiries was not “in any way disproportionate to the enormous task in hand” which has necessitated the dedication of 169 officers.

Undoubtedly Operation Elveden has enjoyed some limited success with the convictions of former Detective Chief Inspector April Casburn and ex-PC Alan Tierney in February and March of this year for misconduct in a public office. However, for the majority, the sheer size and complexity of the combined operations has produced a disproportionate oppressive effect from being caught up in protracted enquiries with many individuals currently under investigation facing extended periods on bail with all the disadvantages inherent in that position. The Sun’s Crime Editor, Mike Sullivan arrested in January 2012 as part of Operation Elveden remained on police bail for fourteen months until he was informed in April that no further action would be taken against him. Mr Sullivan was lucky enough to retain his employment and the support of News International but he has no redress to compensation for the distress and uncertainty of the past year.

Examples like Mr Sullivan have prompted some to question whether journalists are being kept on extended periods of bail while officers search for crimes.

The maxim ‘not only must justice be done; it must also be seen to be done’ appears to be the guiding mantra for police in the conduct of these operations and the resulting flurry of arrests has served to not only reassure the public that allegations of criminal conduct are being robustly investigated but to create the impression that the taxpayer’s money has been well spent.

It is unlikely that all of the 112 arrests made in the name of the three operations were strictly necessary according to the provisions of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 and were instead made as a means through which to achieve targets and consequently justify the levels of funding available. In the sentencing of Mssrs Trunkfield and Tierney, Mr Justice Fulford commented on the “corrosive effect” that the offences investigated and charged have on the public’s confidence. However, the preservation of this confidence is twofold in that those subjected to the criminal process must also have confidence in that system, a confidence easily undermined by the recent increase in police appetite to make arrests which could be avoided by extending invitations to attend voluntary interviews.

Neil Wallis: “I accept that wrongdoing has to be investigated but it all has to come down to proportionality”, a difficult concept to achieve in high profile police operations that rely on results to justify their own existence and continuation.

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