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Civil liberties are so damn difficult

This morning’s temporary detention and release of Grant Smith called into question the value of the ‘advice’ from Andy Trotter of the Association of Chief Police Officers last Friday.

But it also shows up some of the practical problems of such advice. A straightforward situation of: bloke takes pics – police approach bloke and question – bloke takes issue; well, that’s one thing. There seems however to have been more to this morning’s incident. And the problem with additional complications – in this case the role of the Merrill Lynch security guards – is that they introduce chains of human interaction which muddy the waters considerably. And those human interactions also carry with them good old ‘playground’ considerations. And plenty of ego. Concepts like “you can’t make me”, “you and whose army?”, or “I’ll get the police to make you!”.

Consider the scenario from another perspective. Security guards call police and make a complaint. Doesn’t matter what: taking pictures, throwing bananas at them, being rude, not-bending-to-their-will… it doesn’t really matter. Any one of those could raise the bobbies (though the size of the attendance suggests the lovely security folk made one hell of a fuss down the phone).

Once the police are there, what are they to do? Obviously, question the alleged cause of the incident as a first step. Rightly or wrongly. Which takes this away from the nice, simple “But Chief Constable Trotter says you can’t…” territory, and into a rather more mundane: something’s going on, and we need to establish some basic facts.

It’s unfortunate that the trigger was the taking of photos. But having thought about it, I can see they did have to do some questioning. And as Barney Craggs says, there’s always been a normal, civil expectation of basic cooperation when police ask straightforward questions. Or there will have to be some form of escalation; that seems inevitable.

“Yes officer, I know I’ve got a smoking gun in one hand, but I’ve got a camera in the other, and Chief Trotter says…” Ridiculous, of course, but I exaggerate to show that the “I was just taking photos, f–k off” line obviously has some limitations.

What should they have done? Well, this one comes down to front-line basics of good briefing and sensible handling. The officers should have been aware of the recent guidance (their reaction to the brandished Independent front page shows they clearly were). On spotting that they had a photographer involved – and clearly a fairly serious one – would it have really been that hard to say: Mr Smith; this isn’t a stop because you were taking pictures; we know that’s difficult for you guys at the moment and we’re trying to use the powers sensibly. But these security guards have made some allegations, and please understand that we have a duty to find out some basic facts because of that. So shall we all put our egos down, get this done and dusted and get on with our days?

Or words to that effect.

Like many others, my initial reaction was one of outrage. But, grateful for balancing perspectives from people like Barney, I now see a fair bit of colour on an initially black and white canvas.

UPDATE: 11 December

The guidance has had a little more time to bed in; the patter of photographers, and indeed their yellow-jacketed nemeses, might have developed a little as a result. (Though some have still to catch up, it would seem.) Might we be seeing a turn in the tide of righteous indignation and summoning of the blue flashing lights? Today I went to Merrill Lynch/Bank of America to find out, with the excellent Benjamin Ellis on hand – at a distance – to capture anything exciting.

It wasn’t that exciting. Sure enough, as soon as my lens swung toward the hallowed ML/BOA buildings the yellow jackets jerked into life. A hand went up. “You can’t photograph this building” – “Yes I can, I’m on the public highway”. And so on, but nothing remotely serious. And no radios crackling into life. Certainly no blue lights.

We even got chatting: I asked if they were getting photographed a lot in the last few days. “Yup”. -Do you find it difficult to handle things like this? “Yup”. Interestingly, they referred to ‘them’ (in the control room) as being the ones who really pulled the strings (and pressed the big red button). No more details needed: they were essentially good men, doing a job under some enormous pressures and odd policies. They said nothing out of turn. But I did get a strong impression that they had received some hurriedly revised guidance on the handling of photographers in the last few days. If you know what I mean.

I couldn’t resist this, though:

Security guard preventing photography at Merrill Lynch

Security guard preventing photography at Merrill Lynch

So, having looked at the comments so far I have two dominant thoughts:

1 – who watches the watchers? The comment that these particular guards (and others) were regulars at calling out a police response made me sit up and think. I know I wrote rather defensively above on behalf of the police – that if called to genuine ‘situations’ they had to establish basic facts – but if repeated trivial requests for their attendance are happening, then surely this should result in the police turning their attention to the security guards? – “wasting police time” still means something, doesn’t it?

2 – what are our rights? I’ve got a lot of personal experience of organising and presenting information to the public about government services and public policy. But I’m not entirely sure where to find definitive facts on “street-level” scenarios. When can I be searched? Who is authorised to do what? – and so on. This seems a gap still in need of some filling. Although there are of course necessary shades of interpretation and discretion, and nuances that make the writing down of definitive statements rather more elusive than might be at first apparent.

I’d love to hear what the Home Office or policing organisations have to say on this.

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19 Responses

  1. tacitus says:

    “…there’s always been a normal, civil expectation of basic cooperation when police ask straightforward questions.”

    hmmm – that’s all fine – however there is still no need to require someone to identify themselves (or an obligation on the part of the person to do so). “What’s your side of the story” – fine, but how does “identify yourself” help?

    ..and detaining someone because they refuse to identify themselves as the result of an allegation of a third party is certainly not okay either.

  2. Patrick says:

    This is a really interesting issue. So often, people are arrested or charged not for the possible crime, but for how they react to questions from police or other authorities.

    It isn’t fun being stopped and questionned by the police – especially if one is doing something as innocent as taking photographs in the street!

    When this happened to me, it was very hard not to get angry or sarcastic – especially when I felt furious.

    One of the most irritating things was the feeling that anyone wanting to undertake illicit surveillance of a building could do so easily: they probably wouldn’t be standing there with a big SLR and bundle of lenses hanging around their neck. Would I have been stopped if I had been sketching a building – or just looking intently?

    Equally annoying was the impression I was given by the officer stopping me that I “couldn’t be a tourist” because I am clearly English. (I was on a visit to London from Edinburgh at the time – and I was genuinely being a tourist!)

    I have been curious to see whether there has been a noticeable relaxation of attitudes towards photographers.

    FUndamentally, I feel the use of stop-and-search against photographers as allowed by anti-terrorism laws is an infringement of my civil liberties to go about my perfectly legal business. And its use naturally pisses me off…

  3. Leanne Tritton says:

    I think one of the key issues here is the role that private security guards (civilians) play in dictating the ‘law’ for other civilians. The police in the City respond to possibly hundreds of call outs by security guards to investigate ‘suspicious or hostile’ behaviour from photographers. As I understand it, the ‘I am a photographer, not a terrorist’ campaign has found out that not one single call-out has ever resulted in an arrest. Why are we not questioning why private security keep using police time for spurious purposes? The police should be saying to these companies – we can’t keep coming to your calls simply because you don’t like photographers.

  4. Which reminds very indirectly of this post by Will Davies: the police are available in order that they not be required most of the time – it is largely their existence which matters, not their presence.

  5. Benjamin says:

    Will be interested to see how this turns out. When taking photos (on a public street) I have had run-ins with Merrill Lynch security staff who have come out to “talk to me” – Let’s just say “heavy” and well beyond fair and even handed in their approach – to the point where I now have a very negative view of Merrill Lynch and would not become a customer or allow any of my business to be customers.

  6. Patrick says:

    I used to have a link to a guide to photographers rights… And I just found on my (other) blog!

    http://www.sirimo.co.uk/ukpr.php/2004/11/19/uk_photographers_rights_guide

  7. On my recent visit to London, my father phoned to tell me to be careful about taking photos. He was quite concerned that I might get arrested. I told him that I would not stop taking photos in public places for fear of officious people getting daft ideas into their heads. I tried reassuring him that it is perfectly legal to photograph anything from the public highway and that if any police tried arresting me, they would look silly.
    He was genuinely concerned – possibly more so when my reaction was that this sounded like a challenge to make a point about civil liberties and commonsense.

    I have been reprimanded in a station buffet at Peterborough for taking a camera out of my bag. It was the Eastern European woman serving teas who came and snapped at me. I thought it strange that just the sight of a small, compact camera (I was not taking photos with it) caused such a sharp reaction. There are always men in anoraks with cameras at every mainline railway station.
    I discovered later that railway stations ‘official’ policy is that they like people taking photographs because they consider it aids security.

    I have been stared at by people in the street when even carrying an SLR/DSLR camera. 11 year old boys have called me “cool!” Teenage girls have suspected that I must be someone ‘official.’ Council groundsmen have been very suspicious of a middle-aged woman taking photos of tree bark in a park with no children in it.
    People have always regarded my habit of taking photos as weird or suspicious.
    My work has always involved taking photos or commissioning or encouraging other people to take photos for public purposes. During the past 10 years, I have done a lot of work on getting historical and contemporary images online for the public. What is legal/illegal therefore has been of crucial importance to my work.
    English Heritage had major problems some years ago with its Images of England project when a houseowner objected to a photograph of his house (taken from the public highway) appearing on their web site. He complained to the newspapers. He reckoned that a burglary had been aided by that photograph. The data proved that nobody had ever accessed that specific photo online so no burglar had used it to help plan a break-in.
    Unfortunately, it made most of the public cultural heritage organisations extremely twitchy about photos. Most don’t have the money to pay to defend themselves in similar situations.
    I strongly believe that taking photos and putting them in a publicly-accessible place is more likely to help our society to be a safer place. I am sure that most photographers would, like me, be only too happy to let security services have copies of the original, detailed photos at any time, should they be helpful to them.

    Incidentally, I was amused to note that my taking photos in London caused people to stop and look at what I was photographing. I was looking at things that they had never noticed before. I enjoyed that mostly silent dialogue between myself, others, and the urban environment.

  8. Denny says:

    “When can I be searched? Who is authorised to do what? – and so on.”

    And so on, indeed. The answer to that one is quite extensive, as there are a number of ‘powers’ (bits of legislation) that the police can use as a reason to stop and search you.

    A quick search threw up this handy guide:
    http://www.wombles.org.uk/article2008081902.php

    Note that with most powers, the police must have ‘reasonable grounds for suspicion’, but this isn’t a requirement for section 44 of the Terrorism Act – which is the one that’s being misused a lot in London lately. (Section 60 is quite rare, usually only found in place at large protests, dodgy football riots, etc)

    I help run a site called Police State UK, we’ve run some articles about the misuse of stop and search in the past, although not specifically about photographers. Matt Wardman’s list of photographer harassment is worth a read on that front.

  9. [...] someone should tell Merrill Lynch that (see Paul Clarke’s post on Civil Liberties) – Google Street map seems able to publish pictures that I’m not even allowed to [...]

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