Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2009/04/17/camera_shy_coppers/

Police, Cameras, Inaction!

Being filmed never worried Morse

By Jane Fae Ozimek

Posted in Law, 17th April 2009 10:23 GMT

Comment It's finally official: Photographing police officers up to no good is an offence under anti-Terror legislation.

At least that’s the view expressed by one copper up in Enfield this week: and any member of the public who has the gall to train a lens in the direction of our Boys in Blue is likely to find themselves stopped, questioned, required to fill out a form and last but by no means least, added to the Police "Stops Database".

On Tuesday, we were contacted by Mr Sleath, Acting Chair, Friends of the Town Park in Enfield. He told us how, the previous day, he had spotted a police vehicle driving down a footpath and cutting across the grass in the park. Since this was behaviour likely to cause damage he whipped out his camera and took a photo of the offending vehicle.

Quick as a flash, the vehicle stopped. A PCSO got out and asked him what he was doing. When he said he was taking a photograph of a police vehicle in a place where it had no good reason to be, the PCSO first claimed that they were looking for evidence of drug abuse having been thrown into the undergrowth. Then, according to Mr Sleath: "He advised me that under Terrorism s44 he had good reason to stop me as I was taking a photograph of a police vehicle. He detained me while he checked my driving licence and filled out the appropriate forms and checked the details over the radio."

Unfortunately for the police officer in question, Mr Sleath is articulate, confident and well-versed in the ways of officialdom. This story hit the local press a day later – and the Daily Mail the day after that. Mr Sleath also spoke to officials within the Council, who were sympathetic, and lodged a complaint with the local police.

He now feels broadly satisfied with the police response, which he described as frank and comprehensive. According to Mr Sleath, the Police have now acknowledged that this incident should not have happened – but have given him instances of how and where it might be appropriate to use s44 powers.

Of course, some cynics might object that Mr Sleath only received such a swift and polite response because he is a white middle-class media-savvy grown-up. We are sure, however, that the outcome would have been no different, even if he were a schoolboy, say, or "person of colour".

However, this story marks yet another milestone in the downward spiral that many believe is doing the police incredible damage. This is the growing sense that whilst they are increasingly gung ho about committing every aspect of our lives to film, they become seriously allergic to photography the moment cameras are trained on themselves.

The more dubious their own behaviour, the greater the urge to swat the annoying photographer.

Last week, we reported on the case of the snapper stopped for the heinous offence of photographing the Royal Bank of Scotland. That was also the week when one police officer snapped and struck an innocent passer-by, Mr Tomlinson, some minutes before he had a fatal heart attack. This week it emerged that Mr Tomlinson was not alone, as Nicky Fisher, according to independent film record, appears to have been struck across the face by a police sergeant, and then hit with a baton.

Oddly enough, despite a massive police presence and the police commitment to recording as much of every demonstration as possible for future reference, evidence of these incidents surfaced not on any official recording, but on film shot by passers-by.

Readers with longer memories may remember how a similar effect appears to have affected official cameras around the time of the Stockwell incident, in which police marksmen shot and killed innocent Brazilian Jean Charles de Menezes. According to the police, CCTV footage that might have shed some light on events apparently never happened, or was wiped shortly after.

We could go on. There is the incident outside the Greek Embassy last December, in which a policeman in no uncertain terms interferes with a photographer going about his job. There is the incident reported yesterday, in which an Austrian tourist, Mr Klaus Matzka, appears to have been made - unlawfully - to delete shots of a bus station. Or a little further back, this footage from independent film-maker Darren Pollard in Birmingham shows that police secretiveness is not restricted to the Met.

In connection with this case, a spokeswoman for the West Midlands police said that as no formal complaint was received at the time, no action was taken. She added: "Police Officers receive training in the Laws of the UK when they are first recruited, and are sent on regular refresher courses throughout their career."

This is similar to responses we receive whenever such an incident comes to light. We have also heard from serving officers who are beginning to spot the pattern and are very worried about what all this is doing to public confidence. One view they regularly express is that part of the problem lies in the increasing formalisation of police-public encounters.

Whatever the precise reasons, our own sense is that a tipping point is being reached. Police excuses are wearing increasingly thin. If the issue is not addressed soon – as the systemic problem we suspect it is - then the police will only have themselves to blame for a massive loss of public belief in their integrity. ®