New guidelines on the use of police stop and search powers under Section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000 in respect of individuals taking photos in public are to be published this afternoon, according to a spokesman for the National Police Improvements Agency (NPIA).
Meanwhile, the police continue to demonstrate an uncanny knack for own goals and the occasional public relations disaster as individual officers overreact and apply the law on photography inaccurately and possibly unlawfully.
First , some recent stops. At the end of October, 15-year-old schoolboy Fabian Sabbara was stopped by three police community support officers for taking photos of Wimbledon station on his mobile phone. His explanation that he was merely conducting a traffic survey and taking photos as part of his GCSE course work cut no ice.
The PCSOs required him to give his details and sign a form or else, he claimed, they would have arrested him under Section 44 of the Terrorism Act.
His details initially went on to the police stop-and-search database, but were eventually removed after pressure from his parents and media.
In a separate incident, which took place about a fortnight ago and which does not involve the Terrorism Act - police approached students from the Kingston University MA film-making course who were attempting to interview protesters in Parliament Square. According to the students, they were told by police that in order to film, they would need a licence from the Council.
This advice was repeated later by another officer, who also allegedly stated it was against the law to photograph individuals without permission, and subsequently by a spokesperson for the Met, who said: "[The GLA] usually requires written permission to film there.
"Having ascertained that the individuals did not have verbal or written permission, the officers advised them of the byelaw and asked them to desist from filming."
As we understand it, having spoken with both the Greater London Authority (GLA) and Westminster City Council, this is not strictly true - although it may save the Met some paperwork to present it as such. If you wish to carry out commercial filming, you definitely need permission; but the byelaw is not quite so clear when it comes to non-commercial filming.
Either non-commercial filming is permitted, subject to legitimate concerns over Health and Safety and Obstruction, or it is not, and police and Council Wardens ignore the law daily by permitting tourists to take photos. Take a look at s.11 of the relevant byelaws and judge for yourself.
This sort of action is a great shame, and something of an own goal by the police, since guidelines on photography published by various forces and by ACPO are actually quite good. These point out that there is no general power to stop an individual taking photos. Nor are police allowed to remove film or cameras from photographers: such action would almost always be unlawful and probably constitute theft.
Meanwhile, the NPIA sent over an advance copy of their guidelines on stop and search under the dread s.44. These state:
The Terrorism Act 2000 does not prohibit people from taking photographs or digital images in an area where an authority under section 44 is in place. Officers should not prevent people taking photographs unless they are in an area where photography is prevented by other legislation.
If officers reasonably suspect that photographs are being taken as part of hostile terrorist reconnaissance, a search under section 43 of the Terrorism Act 2000 or an arrest should be considered. Film and memory cards may be seized as part of the search, but officers do not have a legal power to delete images or destroy film. Although images may be viewed as part of a search, to preserve evidence when cameras or other devices are seized, officers should not normally attempt to examine them.
Cameras and other devices should be left in the state they were found and forwarded to appropriately trained staff for forensic examination. The person being searched should never be asked or allowed to turn the device on or off because of the danger of evidence being lost or damaged.
Jurisdiction over Parliament Square is a complicated affair, with the Greater London Authority responsible for what happens on the grass, Westminster City Council looking after pavements and the Met controlling the highway. When we raised the matter of licensing with Westminster City Council, we encountered an attitude that photographers are increasingly familiar with when dealing with local bureaucrats.
A spokesperson told us that "there is no legal requirement for individuals to have a license or to seek permission from the Council in respect of taking photographs on the street. However, if individuals were taking photos in Parliament Square, and did so without checking with us first, we would probably ask them to move on".
When we asked why, in the absence of a legal basis for doing this, the Council would do this, their spokesperson invoked "common sense" and "congestion". ®