In the last few days, the topic of hate crime has been back in the news. One paper reported that the police have created rainbow-adorned “hate crime cars”, which they will use to patrol the streets and encourage anyone to come forward should they be a victim of said crime.

Speaking about the purpose of these vehicles in an Instagram video, Julie Cooke, Deputy Chief Constable, said that these would give “confidence to our LGBT+ community but also to other under-represented groups.”

Interestingly, in her video, Cooke anticipates criticisms people might have about the hate crime cars, especially their cost, reassuring that “we’re always replacing vehicles.”

But one suspects public concerns are not limited to finances; that they relate to freedom of speech; to the scope of hate crime legislation, and other matters that cannot be addressed in a quick Instagram video.

In general, the presence of these cars will reignite some of the debate that’s been going on in recent years about hate crime. Although introduced for all the right reasons – to help the police accurately record and tackle crimes driven by prejudice – they now are now in the news for completely different ones, specifically around non-crime “hate incidents”.

Perhaps the most famous example of this was in 2019 when Harry Miller, a docker from Humberside, shared a limerick on Twitter, which had lines including “Your breasts are made of silicon, your vagina goes nowhere”, and was deemed transphobic – leading to a police visit.

Whatever one’s take on the poem, it surely did not warrant an officer turning up at Miller’s workplace to tell him that his tweet had been recorded as a “hate incident”. The High Court has since said the police acted unlawfully and issued a stern warning about the implications for free speech.

Miller’s case highlights some of the current problems with police legislation, the first of which is how poorly defined a hate incident is. The Metropolitan Police says its any one in “which the victim, or anyone else, thinks is based on someone’s prejudice towards them because of their race, religion, sexual orientation, disability or because they are transgender.”

Clearly this wording can mean a huge number of things, some more offensive than others. It also relies on personal perception that someone else has been prejudiced, with the guidance even saying that “Evidence of the hate element is not a requirement.” And the police have been advised in these cases that “it is equally important (as with hate crimes) that these are reported and recorded by the police.”

One of the most disturbing things about hate incident guidelines is that sometimes people have had no idea when they’ve done/said something “problematic”. Incidents have simply been logged against their name. Employers can then pick up on this when they’re doing criminal record checks (normally for jobs where safeguards are needed). Clearly this has had terrible implications for employee rights and free speech.

In April this year Priti Patel asked the College of Policing to stop classifying non-crimes as hate crimes, which should help to remedy some of the aforementioned issues. But it’s worth noting the Met Police has not lost this guidance on its website.

The bigger problem the Government faces is campaigners endlessly want to expand hate crime guidance. Scotland, for instance, recently passed legislation for the offence of “stirring up hatred” and campaigners have called for misogyny to be made a hate crime.

The unfashionable perspective is that by expanding hate crime legislation we a) skew data on the extent of actual hate crime (if silly Tweets are now thrown into the mix) and b) we trample on free speech, which – state the obvious alert – can be incredibly dangerous.

The system needs, at the very least, a tidy up. In February of this year, Caroline ffiske put forward some excellent suggestions for this site, including that “The emotive concept of ‘hate’ is not helpful – would ‘discrimination’ be better?” and “Some degree of significance is needed.”

Her list showed how much, in fact, the whole system needs reforming. Quite how police are meant to follow the confusing definitions and guidance is anyone’s guess. Perhaps it’s no wonder why they want to distract with hate crime cars instead.