Merseyside Police has apologised after its officers used an advertising van to tell residents in the Wirral area “being offensive is an offence”, prompting criticism from free speech advocates.
Neighbourhood police officers deployed the van to display a message of support for LGBT+ people while setting out a zero-tolerance policy on hate crime.
However critics have hit out at the messaging as undermining free speech, which advocates say includes the right to offend. Columnist Paul Embery described an image of officers posing with the van as “staggering” while Paul Whittle, a right-wing London Assembly member, described the officers as “thought police”.
“Being offensive is an offence”, the digital billboard read. “Merseyside Police stand with and support the LGBTQ+ community, we will not tolerate Hate Crime on any level.”
Superintendent Martin Earl issued an apology on Monday. In a statement posted on Facebook, he said the forced wanted to “clarify” that being offensive was “not in itself an offence”.
He added: “A message on an ad-van and on social media this weekend by the local policing team on the Wirral to encourage people to report hate crime, although well intentioned, was incorrect and we apologise for any confusion this may have caused.
“Our hate crime coordinators draw on a wealth of experience and expertise to provide effective and, above all, sensitive and appropriate support for victims.”
The Independent has asked whether the force plans to educate officers on the issue of hate crime and legitimate expression.
Almost three-quarters of the incidents were race-related.
Hate crimes motivated by sexual orientation saw the biggest percentage rise, increasing by 19 per cent to 15,800. Transgender identity as a motivation rose 16 per cent to 2,500 total records.