At a time when resources are scarce, the Merseyside Constabulary must have thought long and hard about its recent advertising campaign: a stern message to the people of the Wirral. ‘Being offensive,’ it declared, ‘is an offence.’ The slogan was put on a van along with text urging the public to inform on transgressors. Four officers posed beside it for a photograph, as if standing ready to enforce its orders. The police only recognised their error after a public outcry. ‘We would like to clarify,’ said Superintendent Martin Earl, ‘that “being offensive” is not in itself an offence.’
On its own, the incident is merely an embarrassment, but it represents a worrying general trend. Once it has been established as a principle that people can be arrested for what they say, not just what they do, then police may indeed believe that being offensive is an offence and act upon that belief.
Had the Merseyside police consulted the Crown Prosecution Service before unveiling the poster, they might have been reminded that hate crime is the exacerbated version of something that is already a criminal offence; that is to say, a crime that is ‘perceived’ to be ‘motivated by hostility or prejudice based on a person’s race or perceived race; religion or perceived religion; sexual orientation or perceived sexual orientation; disability or perceived disability and any crime motivated by hostility or prejudice against a person who is transgender or perceived to be transgender’.
So a ‘hate crime’ is only a crime if it would already qualify as a criminal offence without the aggravating factor. Yet it is disturbing how badly this is explained by the CPS. Many in the police — not just in Merseyside — think that someone who is insulted has been a victim of crime.