The naming and prompt elimination from enquiry of Eric Bellquist as the ‘Putney jogger’ has once again raised questions around the naming of suspects in police enquiries.
‘Media Relations’ are subject to the Authorised Professional Practice guidance produced by the College of Policing. The full APP is publically available here.
In summary, all formal contact with the media by Chief Officers should be recorded in a publically accessible record and, as a matter of good practice; a record should be kept of all media contact made by other officers.
During a high-profile investigation a media strategy should be agreed at senior operational level - either by the Senior Investigating Officer (SIO) or the Gold Commander.
There are occasions where information can be proactively released if it would aid an investigation. This information can include:
- The allegation/offence
- The date information received
- Which unit is investigating
- Any arrests
- Any interviews under caution
- Any bail to return, charges, and/or relevant appeal points.
Unless there is an exceptional circumstance or legitimate policing purpose, the police should not name those who are arrested or suspected of a crime. A policing purpose includes: protecting life and property; preserving order; preventing and detecting offences; bringing offenders to justice; and any duty or responsibility arising from common or statute law.
However, the police can release details of the nature, date and general location of the alleged offence. The police can also release an arrested person’s gender, age, the town or city where they live and disposal (i.e. whether they have been released pending further investigation or whether no further action should be taken). These exemptions do not apply where the release of this information would have the effect of confirming a suspect’s identity.
The police do not prevent the media from attempting to identify a suspect by outside sources but if the media put a name to the police in an attempt to confirm whether an arrest has been made, then the police should neither confirm nor deny.
When a person is charged the police will name a suspect unless there are reporting restrictions in place or exceptional or legitimate policing purposes. When the investigation is into a crime of a serious nature (the examples given are investigations into rape or murder) the police will take a proactive approach in releasing charging information.
Frequently, there will be a request from the media for images and footage of a suspect. While there are slightly different considerations depending on the nature of the request, in general footage can be released when authorised by the SIO for a policing purpose.
The APP guidance was revised as recently as June 2017 and explicitly considers the recommendations of the Leveson Inquiry. Regrettably - as the case of Mr Bellquist has demonstrated - even if the APP guidelines are followed, potentially innocent suspects continue to be identified at an early stage.