During a meeting of the governance committee on Monday (June 22), David Edwards (Con, Bersted) shared his own experience of receiving violent and hate-filled messages as well as death threats from one member of the public.
Mr Edwards, who served with the Royal Engineers, said: “Hate crimes are becoming almost the norm these days and rather worryingly something many are finding almost acceptable.”
He added: “I am by no means a shrinking violet. I’ve been shot at, I’ve had people intent on blowing me up and I’ve seen death and destruction caused by man’s inhumanity to man.
“However, I was trained to react in a certain way, I was issued with the best equipment available and I chose to put myself in those situations.
“As a West Sussex county councillor, I only have one out of those three elements, so an actual threat to my life genuinely shocked me and focussed my mind quite quickly.”
The meeting was told that councillors receive no formal training in how to deal with hateful or violent communications and are told to report them to the police.
Mr Edwards said that was not good enough.
He added: “Malicious communication should not be allowed to stifle opinion or debate because of fear. Nor should it be allowed to be a reason for people not to stand for election.”
The council has started work on a register of people who send hate mail or verbally abuse councillors.
While there were some concerns that such a register would breach data protection rules, Mr Edwards said that had to be weighed against the county council’s duty of care to its staff and councillors.
As well as setting up the register, the council has written to the Local Government Association to find out if other authorities would also like to see the definition of hate crime broadened and to ask for help in lobbying the government to make those changes.
Dr James Walsh (Lib Dem, Littlehampton East) told the meeting that he had received two death threats during his time as chairman of the Sussex Police Authority.
He felt the register was a sensible idea that would be available to councillors, officers and, when needed in evidence, the police.
Michael Jones (Lab, Southgate & Gossops Green) condemned the threats made against Mr Edwards.
But he had reservations about the suggested expansion of the hate crime label.
Mr Jones said: “We have to be almost conscious that what some might consider unacceptable might be what others consider robust political debate.”
Recalling some particularly heated exchanges and barbed comments in the council chamber, he reminded councillors of their own responsibilities and urged them to ‘express our views as politicians in a temperate way’.
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