It has come to light following a Freedom of Information request to 36 police forces in England and Wales, by Big Brother Watch, that 904 police officers and civilians were disciplined, resulting in the resignation of 98 of them and the prosecution of 243, for breaches of The Data Protection Act 1998 over the past three years.
The breaches included harvesting information about neighbours, ex-wives (for divorce proceedings) and the disclosure of suppliers of drugs to a third party. It also shows that police officers were running background checks on friends and potential partners in a clear abuse of their powers.
Kent Police reported that they had sacked 10 of their officers and civilians.
Merseyside Police legally cautioned 208 members of staff for viewing computer records relating to a high profile arrest resulting in seven resigning and one being prosecuted. The force also provided extensive training to their staff on data protection.
West Midlands Police had seven staff prosecuted, the largest number recorded by any force, for various data protection breaches
A statement published by the Association of Chief Police Officers said: “All officers are subject to the standards of professional behaviour set out in the Police Conduct Regulations, These regulations are very clear and state that police officers must be honest, act with integrity and do not compromise or abuse their position. Officers hold a position of trust, with privileged access to data and systems, and they have a positive duty to demonstrate that trust to the communities we serve, When an officer’s conduct, on duty or
off duty, falls below the standards, there will be an investigation into what has occurred and if the allegation is proven then appropriate action will be taken,”
The Information Commissioner’s Office also commented on these revelations: “Police officers and civilian staff can have access to substantial collections of often highly sensitive personal information. It is important that they do not abuse this access and only use the
information for their policing duties. We expect police forces to make substantial proactive efforts to check that any access to their records is for legitimate police purposes and to take action where they discover wrongdoing. Public officials who abuse their positions can face serious consequences including criminal prosecution under the Data Protection Act,”
I understand that the Information Commissioner will be launching an enquiry into this very serious intrusion into private lives and abuse of powers.
It is time the Information Commissioner got his ‘big stick’ that he is always saying is in the cupboard out of it and uses it to start cracking a few skulls (metaphorically). With the current daily disclosures that are coming out about the phone hacking by News International and the high level resignations within the largest force, the Metropolitan Police, this has surely got to be stamped on hard!
“If we are to be able to trust the police in the future they have to do something positive from this and start to show the corruption within their ranks is confined to just a few people and to assure the general public that it is not rife throughout the entire forces of England and Wales.” said a senior partner in a firm of solicitors, “until this is sorted out we are all sitting under a cloud of desperation and fear” she continued.
So what is the answer? In my mind the Information Commissioner should ask the Parliament for permission and resources to start a full, in-depth enquiry into these
figures and get to the bottom of what is happening out there. We all know that police officers are only human and the recent headlines about the officers taking payment for information is just understandable, although not morally or ethically.
I do not believe this is endemic across the police forces of the UK and I look forward to the report from the ICO once they have finished their initial enquiries