Police watchdog denies attempt to 'gag' officers from speaking to press - but questions 'wisdom' of speaking out

A police watchdog has denied trying to “gag” police officers by saying it was illegal to speak to the media about concerns over staffing. (Picture: Shutterstock)

But the police and crime commissioner has questioned the "wisdom" of speaking to the press about concerns.

On 15 May, the Grimsby Telegraph reported that on some 3-7am shifts there are as few as four Humberside Police officers working.

Humberside Police and Crime Commissioner Matthew Grove denied the claim, and told the paper: "If any police officers are telling you the number of officers on duty, they are breaking The Official Secrets Act and becoming criminals."

The comment was picked up by The Times this week, with an editorial in the paper describing it as “ridiculous”.

In a comment headlined “Enemies of Free Speech”, The Times said: “It is hard to imagine a police commissioner taking such a plainly indefensible stance but for an institutional bias against the free flow of information, and a wilful blindness as to its importance.”

The Times reports today that when it contacted Grove’s office, press officer Dave Hudson initially told the paper that he had been misquoted and was seeking a correction.

However, when the newspaper insisted he had said this and that no correction had been sought, Hudson admitted that the comment was made. Hudson added that he had asked the Telegraph not to print it at the time because it was inaccurate, officers would not be breaching the Official Secrets Act.

In a statement, Grove said: “As Police and Crime Commissioner, my prime concern is the safety of the public and that of serving police officers. Recently a local journalist informed me he had been given information by a police officer about the specific number of staff on duty on one particular night shift. I have to question the wisdom of an officer giving out information which could potentially jeopardise safety.

“I signed the Official Secrets Act on taking office as Commissioner, and felt that to provide sensitive information such as that disclosed would breach the principles of that act.

“Humberside Police are currently going through a period of unprecedented change. The force was in the first few days of a new shift pattern and as with all major changes, it will inevitably lead to some frustrations and teething problems. There are established lines of communication for officers to raise concerns internally or through their staff organisations, rather than going to the media.

“My job is to hold the police to account on behalf of the public and I receive regular briefings from the force on how the new model is working. I would never try to ‘gag’ police officers from giving their views as has been implied, but ask them to consider the wider impact on the public and their colleagues before they do. My office conducts a quarterly staff survey where officers can give their views in confidence and I encourage them to do so.”             

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