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Police law-interpretation: What next?

Peering at pub punters isn't proper, and that's not all

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The Information Commissioner has given the Metropolitan Police a good ticking-off for attempting to bring about the blanket introduction of CCTV in pubs. Their stance on the issue "raised serious privacy issues", which is data protection speak for "could possibly be unlawful".

In response, the Met’s initial reaction – a declaration that their policy will carry on regardless - appeared to be a shining example of how to react when authority tells us we may be acting illegally. To be fair, that is what their spokesperson was quoted as saying yesterday: this morning, The Reg spoke with the Met, who insisted that their spokeswoman may have been misinterpreted – and that there was no longer a blanket policy. Police will in future consider all licensing requests on their individual merits.

However, this is but one of a number of recent instances where the Police – and particularly the Met – have developed "policy" in respect of maintaining law and order that looks suspiciously like creating new law, and it is giving lawyers and politicians cause for concern.

Evidence of the blanket ban emerged when Nick Gibson took over the Draper's Arms in Barnsbury Street, Islington from its previous owners, and then sought to relicense it. Although the pub had no previous record of trouble, and CCTV had not been a condition of licensing, the Met nonetheless asked licensing authorities to make it a condition now.

Further inquiries revealed that in certain parts of London, the Met has a blanket policy of requiring that licensed premises install CCTV, in direct contravention of guidelines (pdf) from the Information Commissioner on the subject. The Office of the Information Commissioner suggests that installation of CCTV is a major step, and in each case, should be considered on its individual merits.

The ICO has also expressed concerns that the Policing Bill, now before parliament, may make it easier for the police and local authorities to impose blanket requirements in future.

Yesterday, lawyers, MPs and activists met in Portcullis House, Westminster, to hear about a report into alleged systemic misconduct during the policing of the Kingsnorth Climate Camp in August 2008. The report alleges that police used S1 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 as a blanket search power to stop people and disrupt the otherwise lawful activity of the protesters attempting to attend the camp.

According to the report’s author, solicitor Frances Wright, this is not what the letter of the law says, which is that there must be a reason to suspect the individual concerned, and that stereotyping all individuals who attend a particular event is unlawful.

Comedian and political activist Mark Thomas recently took a complaint over a similar incident – in which two policemen stopped him on the grounds that he "looked over-confident" - to the Police Complaints Commission (IPCC). That case, too, revolved around interpretation of PACE – and the IPCC agreed that the police had over-stepped their powers.

Similar issues may arise when the police decide to set up on-street scanning facilities in order to check passers-by for the possibility that they might be carrying knives. Police have been reported as arguing that although they have no powers to compel an individual to be scanned, a refusal to accede to a police request in this respect may itself be suspicious, thereby allowing the stop and search to go ahead anyway.

However, more recent checks in this regard have tended to rely on S60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, which allows an officer of the rank of inspector or above to authorise blanket searches where he "reasonably believes that incidents involving serious violence are imminent".

The problem with incidents of this kind, according to Norman Baker MP, who addressed the meeting on the Climate Camp protest yesterday is that they look suspiciously like police-made law and go hand in hand with the politicisation of the police. He said: "The IPCC exist to investigate allegations of individual misconduct by Police Officers. They are not there to investigate systemic abuses of power, which is what seem to be going on in cases such as the Climate Camp.

"I am a strong supporter of the Police. But there looks increasingly to be a need for additional oversight into the ways in which they interpret the law." ®

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