Vincent Tabak trial: You're a police officer not Max Clifford

28 October 2011

Vincent Tabak’s trial for the murder of Joanna Yeates ended today. Tabak was convicted and given a life sentence.

As is customary, a statement was read outside court on behalf of Yeates’s parents. It contained this:

For us it is with regret that capital punishment is not a possible option for his sentence. The best we can hope for him is that he spends the rest of his life incarcerated where his life is a living hell, being the recipient of all evils, deprivations and degradations that his situation can provide.

These kinds of sentiments are common in cases like this. But it wasn’t the words themselves that perplexed me so much as the person delivering them: a police officer.

Police family liaison officers (FLOs) serve an important role. In serious, complex and high-profile cases they act as a vital link between the police and the victim or the victim’s family. FLOs ensure that victims and their relatives are given appropriate information about the progress of their case. They arrange support where necessary. They provide a humane and consistent link between the police and members of the public in the most difficult and sensitive circumstances. They are a great improvement on the times when often the first a victim’s family heard about an important development in their case was when a reporter doorstepped them to ask a question about it.

But it’s very difficult to see how FLOs making public statements to the media fits into this role. Victims and their families often find the media’s desire for access unwelcome and distressing. While it might be appropriate for the police to help victims to deal with the consequences of media attention it doesn’t follow that the police should involve themselves in the process of a private citizen wanting to speak or not speak to the media. Not only does this have the potential to disrupt what is essentially a democratic process, it also leaves the police in grave danger of compromising their role as politically-neutral servants of the state.

The Yeates family’s statement is one such case.

Public policy and the law on imprisonment says that offenders are sent to prison as punishment, not for punishment. Offenders are punished by losing their freedom and the opportunities that they might have pursued were they at liberty. Prisons should not have luxury cells but nor should they be “living hells”. Prisoners are entitled to reasonable protection from violence and intimidation. They must be adequately housed and fed. They should be provided with medical and psychological care. They are entitled to be treated with respect and within the obvious confines of the situation they should be given reasonable autonomy. It follows from this that it would be against policy and in most cases against the law for the prison service or individual prison officers to make or allow a prisoner’s life to become a “living hell” where they suffer significant deprivation and degradation.

Like all private citizens, the Yeates family are entitled to hold and express whatever views they choose but I can see no justification for those views to be conveyed through a police mouthpiece with all the implied credibility that brings. It isn’t the job of the police to use public resources to help anyone contribute to a debate on policy, let alone to amplify a desire for treating someone with contempt for the law as it stands and in a way that’s contrary to the core values of the police and prison services. This brings the police into disrepute. Detective inspector Russ Jones might not agree with the sentiments in the words he read but the ease with which he read them entitles one to raise the question.

Police officers should not make their jobs harder by acting like Max Clifford. FLOs should be prohibited from speaking to the media on behalf of victims and their families. At the very least, the FLO in this case should have declined to read the parts of the statement about capital punishment and the Yeates’s hope for Tabak’s “degradation” in prison.

If the Yeates family or anyone else has a written statement that they want to give to the media they can send it directly to the Press Association. Then there will be no possibility of it tainting the police or it being given undue credibility by them.