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North Wales Police institute new happiness law

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Police in North Wales are road-testing a new offence: it's called "failing to make a police officer happy".

That, at least, is the conclusion that some viewers might draw from a recording posted earlier this week by biker mag, Motorcycle News (MCN). Penalties for not satisfying the copper contentment quota include possible unlawful seizure of photographic equipment and a stern ticking off.

MCN has been active in organising a Reclaim North Wales rally in Betws-y-Coed, after the local police force admitted to having stopped around 400 motorcyclists every summer weekend, despite the majority of those stopped having committed no offence whatsoever.

The incident took place as a team working for MCN attempted to take pictures of officers parked in a lay-by on the A5 secretly watching thousands of riders heading to the protest rally.

According to MCN, the officers first claimed to be monitoring traffic. However, as soon as they produced a camera, one officer objected on the grounds that he was driving a registered firearms vehicle and that taking a photograph might endanger his safety.

The officer ignored repeated requests that he provide a legal justification for his demand, and when the reporter took a photo of the vehicle, it is alleged that the officer snatched the camera from the reporter’s hands.

The law surrounding this area is still murky. It is possible that the police officer had at the back of his mind the Counter-Terrorism Act 2008, a new law under which it is now an offence to elicit or attempt to elicit information about an individual who is or has been a member of Her Majesty’s forces, a member of any of the intelligence services or a constable, "which is of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism, or publishes or communicates any such information".

A picture containing the registration number of a firearms vehicle might fall into this category. However, the reaction of police forces elsewhere in the UK, as well as official denials that the powers contained in this act would be used in such a broadbrush fashion, suggests this may not be the case.

In London, the Met has asked that photographers co-operate with CO19, the Metropolitan Police's Specialist Firearms Command, by agreeing to pixellate the faces of police marksmen. Head of CO19, Chief Superintendent Bill Tillbrook, claimed that publication of such pictures created a security risk and instanced cases where police who had been identified were subsequently subject to abuse.

In other words, the UK’s largest police force does not believe they have a legal power to prevent publication of such pics, and are relying on co-operation with publishers to achieve a sensible outcome. ACPO guidelines on photography generally do not suggest that the police prevent photography. Rather, the decision as to what to publish is an editorial one and if pictures have been taken that might endanger individual police officers, the matter should be discussed with editors.

El Reg contacted North Wales police and put a number of questions. We asked:

- Could they confirm that the police constable photographed did utter the remarks?

- What lawful grounds did he have for seizing the camera?

- If he has committed an offence, will the police Force be taking action?

- Can they confirm that the vehicle in question was a firearms vehicle – and therefore is that fact classed as sensitive information?

- Might divulging this fact to a journalist not have been a tactical error by the police constable?

- Is this incident not simply a continuation of a pattern of behaviour which has seen North Wales police already accused of making the law up and acting unlawfully in respect of bikers?

So far, we have received no response. ®

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