Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2009/04/07/gov_photography/
Photocops: Home Office concedes concern
Zooming in on the snapper-stoppers
The Home Office has at last conceded that the policing of photographers requires a little more scrutiny.
Tory MP and Assistant Chief Whip John Randall extracted an admission from the Home Office that it was an issue in need of further review. Print Display worker Piers Mason can bear this out, having been stopped and questioned about his photographic activities last week.
As police closed down large sections of the City of London last week in readiness for the G20 protests, Mason was not impressed when police officers asked him to explain why he had taken photos of a TV crew outside the Royal Bank of Scotland’s Bishopsgate Offices.
His unhappy encounter began as he was making his way to work down Bishopsgate at around 9 in the morning. Speaking to The Register, he said: "I saw a film crew setting up outside RBS and thought that would make an interesting picture. The next thing I knew, three police officers approached me and asked me to explain what I was doing. According to them, this was to ‘investigate suspected crime, disorder or anti-social behaviour’."
A quick web search reveals that this particular formulation is one used frequently by Police in connection with Stops under Section 1 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE), either when searching an individual, or when simply asking an individual to account for their actions. According to official guidelines, any stop must be based on reasonable suspicion and not "on generalisations or stereotypical images of certain groups or categories of people as more likely to be involved in criminal activity".
Mr Mason reckons the encounter took around 20 minutes, during which police logged his personal details, checked them against the Police Computer, and finally entered his name and details into a "Stops Database". They then sent him on his way clutching a form that confusingly stated he had been asked to "action per actions". No: we don’t understand what that means either.
Coincidentally, a couple of hours later, John Randall stood up in Parliament to catalogue a series of incidents in which police or Community Support Officers had stopped individuals taking photographs in the street and required them to desist or to delete photographs taken. Such a requirement, if true, would be unlawful and possibly open the police officer in question to criminal charges.
"This does appear to be a growing problem, resulting mostly from over-zealous policing," Randall told us. "The fact that several other members have raised the issue and intervened in the debate suggests that this is not just a matter that affects one London Borough."
In response, Home Office Under-Secretary Shahid Malik agreed that the incidents described were regrettable and that counter-terror legislation was not intended to be used in this way. Section 44 of the Terror Act 2000 gave Police Constables the right to stop and search individuals and vehicles where they believe that such a search is "expedient for the prevention of acts of terrorism".
These powers apply to "designated areas", which the Met confirmed last night currently cover the whole of London, subject to review of this status on a 28-day basis.
Despite this issue finally being debated in Parliament, there is still a good deal of confusion over what the issues are and what is going on.
The incidents that John Randall describes are at the extreme end: they involve police over-stepping the mark and requiring members of the public to hand over film or delete film despite the fact that no such power exists. This is confirmed by existing police guidelines.
A spokeswoman for the Met confirms that the police are committed to allowing photographers to continue their work as normally as possible. She told us: "Any allegations or complaints about police treatment of photographers is taken very seriously by the MPS."
The second is a much broader issue of fearfulness on the part of photographers, brought about by the way in which police are increasingly using a range of stop powers to gather intelligence or, as some activists have argued, to exert social control.
A further issue is that "stop and account" exists in a grey area between formal and informal policing. Serving officers have complained to us that it should not be in any way surprising if police occasionally stop individuals and ask them to explain their presence in an area. However, the formalisation of this process under PACE, combined with form-filling and database, creates a much greater degree of public suspicion on the part of some sections of the public.
Thus, Mr Mason appears to have been stopped not under terror legislation, but simply using PACE. "Reasonable suspicion" in this and similar cases boils down to the fact that bad people have been known to take photos of public buildings – so talking to Mr Mason was justified.
However, as we have reported previously, the way in which the Met is increasingly redefining the boundaries of what counts as suspicious activity is itself worrying and begins to look like law-making by default. This is an issue that needs to be kept firmly under the spotlight. ®