The police force which wanted to keep the location of busted cannabis farms secret

Cannabis farm raids are often promoted by police forces as a story they want to tell. But when Ben Hurst from BirminghamLive tried to seek data about such raids, he got a very different response, and a six month battle ensued…

When I put the initial Freedom of Information request to West Midlands Police in on Friday Jun 22, I had little idea of what was going to ensue.

It was a simple request — I wanted a story where our readers could see the nearest large cannabis bust near to where they live — very shareable plus good information of interest to almost everyone.

Ben Hurst

To that end I made the following request: “Under the Freedom of Information act I’d like to know the location of each cannabis farm busted in the West Midlands in the last 12 months for which figures are available. In each instance I’d like to know the street or road name where the cannabis farm was and how many plants were discovered.”

The police initially came back saying that due to the way their data was organised they would only be able to provide overall number of scenes attended by their cannabis team and number of plants found — I objected as this information would be effectively meaningless.

They subsequently said they ‘may’ be able to provide the street/ road name. Due to a mix up over emails there was a slight pause — but in September they agreed to proceed under that basis.

On September 20 they came back — but all the addresses were redacted under ‘Section 40(2) is an absolute and class based exemption if to release the information exists would breach the third party’s data protection rights’. The FOI officer added: ‘I believe that the right to privacy outweighs any public interest in release.’

This meant that the information was ‘January — number of plants seized on each occasion with no location’. So in terms of any kind of mapping of crime scenes it was utterly meaningless.

I immediately appealed saying that as they were crime scenes they surely weren’t exempt — not to mention the fact that they highlight cannabis busts all the time on twitter — which we then cover.

A week later came the response: “I have reviewed the original decision and can confirm that relevant information is held by West Midlands Police. The majority of the requested information has already been provided and I am afraid that I am not required to release street/road name data.”

Having made my appeal I then went to the Information Commissioner (worth noting that you have to appeal the original decision first before they’ll even look at it).

I had to provide all our correspondence with the police and after a lengthy to and fro the police provided me with the original (incomplete) data and also sent me links to all the stories BirminghamLive and other media had covered abourt cannabis busts.

I still wasn’t happy… “I still really don’t think this is an adequate response — sending me the details of stories we’ve already covered is incomplete data. The reason for this request is to show where the biggest cannabis finds were in the region. This is ‘the biggest cannabis finds in the region the media asked about at the time and no others because the police are refusing to give the locations’.” (This was late November — remember initial request in June).

By this point we were copying our ICO case worker into all our correspondence and I made the point: “I think this is actually a sad state of affairs — if the location of a crime is somehow thought to be exempt under data protection laws then this has incredibly serious implications for the reporting of crime by newspapers and also the solving of crime by police.”

At this point West Midlands Police said they’d misinterpreted my original request as asking for the exact address (ie road name and street number- which we’d never print anyway — and which I didn’t ask for!). They sent me the date I’d originally asked for (more or less).

Instead of a ‘summer’ story it’ll make a Christmas one — and I’ve got high hopes ‘How near do YOU live to a big cannabis bust?’ will do well.

There was never an ICO formal Decision Notice — but police relented in the end.

I’d feel better about it if it was a true scoop exposing wrongdoing at the highest level — rather than absolutely basic information which should have been given out without a second thought — but there you go!