Austerity has left police too stretched to honour a new pledge by prosecutors to treat online hate crime the same as face-to-face hate crime without neglecting other crime, the Police Federation has warned.
Prosecutors announced on Monday a raft of changes to their approach to hate crime, which included the online pledge because social media “have provided new platforms for offending behaviour”, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) said.
Sergeant Simon Kempton, the Federation’s spokesman for online crime, told HuffPost UK the knock-on effect to the police - who investigate such crimes before referring them to the CPS for charging - could mean: “While we’re doing that, we’re not doing something else.”
“The difficulty is - we have been cut back so greatly now, if we shift our emphasis more towards online crime, it means we’re doing less of the more traditional crimes,” he said.
″[When the cuts started] there wasn’t really a Twitter, Facebook was in its infancy. Online crime didn’t really exist the way it does today but it’s pervasive now.
“Most crime has an online element... Our resources have fallen behind as online crime has taken off.”
Since 2010, the police budget has been cut significantly and officer numbers have fallen in England and Wales.
The most recent data shows the CPS prosecuted a record number of hate crimes: 15,442 in 2015/16. But in the same year, the number of hate crime cases police were referring to the CPS for charging decisions fell by around 9%.
Kempton said this fall was partly due to there being “fewer and fewer police officers catching the bad guys”.
Kempton said he favoured the CPS’s commitment but more resources were needed.
But he said there was a wide spectrum of alleged online hate crime that ranged in seriousness and not all of merits police attention.
Kempton, who worked on the case of a 15-year-old girl who killed herself after suffering online bullying, added: ”[Online hate crime] can be incredibly impacting but the other end of that scale is, it can be fickle and petty and something that the police should go nowhere near.”
Sue Mountstevens, the independent police and crime commissioner for Avon & Somerset, also highlighted the need for more money in police budget.
She was responding to the Secret Barrister, the Twitter persona of an anonymous lawyer, who said police budgets would need to rise but predicted they wouldn’t.
Secret Barrister told HuffPost UK: “Police budgets won’t be increased because there’s not the money to do so and any spare money will find itself diverted to terrorism and serious organised crime.
“If neither police nor CPS are properly funded, that is of itself not a bar to pursuing more prosecutions, but something will have to give.
“Swingeing cuts to the CPS since 2010 have meant that fewer cases are prosecuted each year, and those that are prosecuted are rarely properly so. Basic evidence is not gathered or served and cases collapse at court.
“A CPS drive to prosecute more of one type of crime will simply mean more crime prosecuted less effectively.”
Director of Public Prosecutions Alison Saunders told Channel 4 News that the new CPS guidance was “clear about when we will prosecute, which helps police colleagues”.
When asked why online hate crime and in-person hate crime should be treated with parity given a threat in person was more immediate, she said: “People don’t necessarily know that. Victims will very clearly tell you that they feel in fear of their lives from online threats.
“There should be no difference in our response, whether it’s online or offline. Charges and sentence may be different, but there should be no difference in the way we take that into account.”