Tuesday, June 16, 2009

no cameras please, we're police officers

Police have long believed that any activity they don't like should be treated as illegal. It doesn't have to be confrontational or rowdy, just not to their liking.

Recent changes in the law about taking photos of police have muddied the waters a bit, so let's be clear about what the law is. The Association of Chief Police Officers makes clear that taking photographs in public is not illegal.

Police officers may not prevent someone from taking a photograph in public unless they suspect criminal or terrorist intent. Their powers are strictly regulated by law and once an image has been recorded, the police have no power to delete or confiscate it without a court order. This applies equally to members of the media seeking to record images, who do not need a permit to photograph or film in public places

Ah, but you can 'suspect terrorist intent' of someone taking a photo of a police car churning up the grass in your local park.

Whilst the police are deploying ever more officers to photograph and film people doing nothing illegal in order to be stored on databases of ne'er-do-wells, they are also increasing their aversion to lenses being pointed at them.

At the G20 protests on April 1st police ordered press photographers to clear the area under Section 14 of the Public Order Act. This gives police the powers to limit public assemblies that

may result in serious public disorder, serious damage to property or serious disruption to the life of the community

They were essentially saying that the photographers were not observers but were part of the demonstration. They knew it was bollocks, but nobody wants to be arrested and it got the lenses out of the way whilst officers used dogs on the crowd.

It didn't begin at the G20. Resenting the increasing harassment they're subjected to, last year photographers petitioned the Prime Minister. Responding to it in January, 10 Downing Street sought not to reassure but assert the need to restrict unofficial people bearing witness.

the law applies to photographers as it does to anybody else in a public place. So there may be situations in which the taking of photographs may cause or lead to public order situations, inflame an already tense situation, or raise security considerations.

Later that month, a photographer at the demonstration against the BBC's decision not to broadcast an appeal for Gaza was confronted by a member of the Forward Intelligence Team

The police officer said “let me have a look at that picture.” I said, “No”. The police officer then said, “You’re not allowed to take photos of police officers”. I then said, “Don’t be ridiculous of course I can take pictures of police officers”. The police officer then tried to take my camera from me.

After a bit of time I think the police officer realised he was in the wrong trying to forcibly take my equipment from me. He then got very close to me, way into my personal space, and said again “you shouldn’t have taken that photo you were intimidating me”. I think that if Marc [Vallee] had not been there taking these photos the situation could have ended very differently.

The copper needn't have waited too long. Less than three weeks later the Counter-Terrorism Act 2008 came into force. Amongst other things, it extended the laws against gathering information on the armed forces to include the police. This measure was tagged on at the end of the debate on the House of Commons so nobody could argue.

Under section 76, it is now an offence to obtain information about a police officer ‘which is of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism’, punishable by up to ten years in jail.

A Liberal Democrat peer proposed an amendment to change the wording from 'likely to be useful' to 'with the intention that it is useful'. They withdrew it after being told that the Explanatory Notes to the new law say the new offence will only be committed where the information in question is

such as to raise a reasonable suspicion that it was intended to be used to assist in the preparation or commission of an act of terrorism, and must be of a kind that was likely to provide practical assistant to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism.

That provides for some relief, until you realise what constitutes terrorism. The definition is to do (or threaten to do) certain kinds of action

designed to influence the government or to intimidate the public or a section of the public... for the purpose of advancing a political, religious or ideological cause.

What kinds of action? As well as the stuff we’d think of such as serious violence against people, we have

serious damage to property

Serious damage to property for a political cause? This easily covers the more spectacular bits of direct action even if they could not harm anyone. The definition is so broad that the Terrorism Act has been invoked to search people attending the Climate Camp at Heathrow and protesters outside – oh rich irony – DSEi, Europe’s largest arms fair.

It’s easy to see how someone taking pictures of police could be assisting someone doing that sort of thing. It looks like FITwatch are squarely in the frame.

The new law can be readily applied to a photograph taken by someone on a demonstration that includes an identifiable police building or vehicle, and arguably any officer. Certainly, it’s enough for them to cite it to arrest someone to clear them out of the way even if charges aren’t brought.

As George Monbiot notes

No Act has been passed over the last 20 years with the aim of preventing anti-social behaviour, disorderly conduct, trespass, harrassment and terrorism which has not also been deployed to criminalise a peaceful public engagement in politics.

No officer can seriously have thought anyone at Heathrow was a terrorist. They were just using the powers as an extension of the I Don't Like Your Face Act to deal with people that higher powers had decided should be obstructed and intimidated.

As they've proven at every opportunity, adding to the arsenal of available powers can only add to the confidence and range of harassment.

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