Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2009/03/24/police_ad/
Police ad urges: 'Trust no one'
A nation of bin-rummagers?
Analysis A new ad campaign by the Metropolitan Police warns the public to be on the alert for strangers who look at them in a funny way, and to check the contents of their neighbours’ bins. Suggestions that the campaign may be a tad alarmist have been dismissed, the police arguing they are only doing what is necessary to protect the public in dangerous times.
Meanwhile, lawyers already concerned by what they see as police overreaction and exaggeration of threat have warned that this campaign may represent a much more sinister attempt to extend police powers into places where Parliament has hitherto been unwilling to allow them.
First the campaign. About a week ago, a reader alerted us to a Met campaign warning Londoners to be on the lookout for suspicious people and circumstances: chemical containers left lying in a wheelie bin, or people staring "suspiciously" at CCTV cameras.
This is in line with the overall Met message of "If you suspect it, report it", which urges Londoners to trust their instincts and to report any activity they believe suspicious, and posters such as the anti-photography one, which suggests that people taking photos may be suspicious.
The official police line is that this is no more than sensible precaution. A spokeswoman for the Met said: "Acts of terrorism involve planning stages." She went on to explain that the Met are merely "giving examples of suspicious activity which could be linked to terrorism that people should look out for".
She also cited instances in which behaviour of the sort warned against formed part of the case against individuals later convicted of terrorist offences. Following Operation Rhyme, Dhiren Barot was sentenced to 30 years’ jail in 2006 for conspiracy to murder: he had previously filmed security measures - including CCTV - in various US cities.
In the UK, 2008's Operation Vivace led to the jailing for 40 years of Muktar Said Ibrahim and a number of co-defendants: they had used hydrogen peroxide in bombs which were detonated on the London transport network two weeks after the 7/7 bombings. Hundreds of litres of hydrogen peroxide were purchased by the defendants, and bottles were recovered from Ibrahim’s flat and the bin area at the flats after they were spotted by a caretaker.
One problem with this debate is that it has consequences well beyond the psychological: because in law, police powers depend directly on the reasonableness – or otherwise – of the suspicions they have in specific situations.
Under s1 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, a police officer may stop an individual to look for stolen or prohibited items where he has reasonable cause for supsicion. s60 of that Act provides a broader power to search where a senior officer has declared there to be a specific risk of violence. S43 of the Terror Act 2000 gives an officer the power to stop and search anyone he reasonably suspects to be a terrorist, for items that may help prove that fact.
The key to s1 and s43 searches is reasonableness and specific suspicion. There has been much debate about the use of "profiling", whereby police stop individuals who exhibit certain characteristics. A few months back, comedian Mark Thomas complained that he had been stopped for looking "too confident": the Police Complaints Commission agreed that such a stop was unreasonable, and Mark Thomas is now taking further action.
In a statement to El Reg yesterday, he said: "It is in the incidents of stop and search that protestors and indeed many black and Asian youth define their relationship with the law. Too often these stop and searches are unlawful and uncivil- this is not the way to either protect citizens rights and liberties nor is it the way to advance policing by consent, the much vaunted ideal of the police."
Lawyers for the Kingsnorth Climate Camp claim that police used s1 powers last summer in a blanket – and probably illegal - stop and search of everyone attempting to attend the camp. After a day or so, when they had confiscated sufficient items to ratchet up the level of alarm – including such lethal weaponry as board games, wigs and inflatable cushions – they switched to using their s60 powers.
Frances Wright, a member of the Climate Camp legal team, makes a direct link between police actions then and now. She said that "if the police are able to turn any deviation from 'normal' conformist behaviour into 'suspicious activity', then they effectively award themselves enormous new powers to stop and search pretty much at will.
"This is a dangerous trend, and one that Parliament absolutely needs to review now, before further damage is done."
Wright added that she believed a similar process was at work already in advance of the G20 summit in London. She added: "The Met are talking up the danger of threat, in order to create the circumstances that will allow them to implement far more draconian powers on the day." ®
In investigating this issue, our notice was drawn to the basis for police use of knife "arches" on the street. While many will be based on either local bye-laws or s60 powers, a good few are not, and have no statutory basis whatsoever. In such cases, we are informed, the police do not regard requesting an individual to walk through an arch as a "search".
So no warnings or legal caveats need be issued.
However, failure to walk through an arch on request is, itself, suspicious - and therefore grounds for a s1 search. QED.
(Update - A spokeswoman from the Met finally got back to us with this: "Should a person refuse to pass through a screening arch this does not in itself provide reasonable grounds to conduct a manual search. It is clearly a factor which may influence an officer in establishing ‘reasonable grounds’ and is likely to lead to questioning or other investigative measures, but it is not grounds alone to justify a search."