Dec 8, 2009
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:
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.