The days of police unlawfully collecting and holding personal information on individuals exercising their legal right to protest may be drawing to a close.
That, at least, is the conclusion of protest groups who have themselves been the object of police surveillance in the past – and judging by the response from the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), they may well be right.
A key report – Adapting to Protest – was put together by Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Constabulary, Dennis O’Connor, and published today. It criticises Police forces that have failed to move with the times when it came to dealing with major political demonstrations, and raises a number of issues with which El Reg readers will be familiar. These include "an absence of clear standards on the use of force" and "inappropriate use of public order powers such as stop and search and overt photography".
Criticism is also levelled at differences between forces in their understanding of the law, inconsistent equipment and tactics and outdated training and guidance.
However, it is in the area of surveillance and data collection that this report may have its most far-reaching effect. It adds, almost as afterthought, that there should be a "Review of the status of the Association of Chief Police Officers to ensure transparent governance and accountability structures, especially in relation to their quasi-operational role of the commissioning of intelligence and the collation and retention of data".
This brings together two issues that have been increasingly troublesome to those who feel that the Police have been exceeding their brief in recent years and even acting unlawfully.
At present, surveillance of demonstrations and the collection, retention and dissemination of information is managed by three units, with an estimated spend of £9 million, set up and managed within ACPO. The largest of these is the National Public Order Intelligence Unit (NPOIU), which runs a central database containing details of thousands of so-called domestic extremists.
Information is fed into this system from Forward Intelligence Teams (FIT), run by individual police forces – and fed back out again to police forces in various formats, including "spotter cards" which provide local police with a handy "I-spy" guide to potential troublemakers.
In addition, ACPO runs the National Extremism Tactical Coordination Unit (NETCU), which advises companies on how to manage political campaigns, and the National Domestic Extremism Team (NDET), which pools intelligence gathered by investigations into protesters across the country.
Concerns over the legality of this data collection have been raised by the Information Commissioner. A spokesman for his office told The Register: "We do have genuine concerns about the ever increasing amounts of information that law enforcement bodies are retaining.
"Organisations must only collect people’s personal information for a proper purpose. We will need to talk to ACPO to understand why they consider it is necessary to hold lawful protesters’ details in this way, before considering whether this meets the terms of the Data Protection Act."
This is on top of criticisms regularly levelled at ACPO that, as an ad hoc body set up to provide co-ordination across the Police Forces of England and Wales, it sits in a curious legal limbo, highly influential in setting police policy and tactics, yet not subject to specific controls.
Attempts by members of the public to elicit information on the development of police policy on a number of core issues are now effectively thwarted by the fact that the policy development took place within ACPO – and was therefore beyond the reach of the Freedom of Information Act.
The HMIC report appears to acknowledge these issues, as does ACPO President Sir Hugh Orde, whose first public interview since taking office included an acknowledgement of public disquiet over the way his units are gathering data and agreed that the scheme "can go tomorrow", although some form of monitoring of protesters would need to continue, with independent regulation.
Whilst expressing his continued belief in the virtues of the British model of policing, Chief Inspector Denis O’Connor warned that it could be undermined if formidable public order uniform and tactics are perceived to dominate, the law is misused, the police appear to take sides or thoughtless acts of aggression are perceived to have occurred.
He said: "British police risk losing the battle for the public’s consent if they win public order through tactics that appear to be unfair, aggressive or inconsistent. This harms not just the reputation of the individual officers concerned but the police service as a whole."
Val Swain, an activist for FitWatch, who actively monitor police surveillance tactics in this area, welcomed the HMIC report, but felt it could go further.
She said: "While we welcome this first step, we need to go much further than HMIC’s recommendations. What we need is an actual change in the culture of public order policing. The way the police behave in relation to protest, public order situations, and indeed the public generally, must differ from what has gone before." ®