The Metropolitan Police Force cannot be guaranteed to abide by the law when it comes to allowing the public their right to take photographs.
That was the startling admission made last week by Met Police Commissioner John Stephenson under sharp questioning from Liberal Democrat London Assembly Member Dee Doocey during a Police Authority Meeting on 22 July in City Hall. Video footage of the exchange is available on the Metropolitan Police Authority site, with relevant footage from around the 68 minute mark.
Doocey asked the commissioner: "Are you confident that your officers are aware of the law when it comes to members of the public taking photographs in public places?"
In response, Stephenson talks initially as though this issue is in the past. He said: "It is a stated fact and public record that we did go through a period when there was a spate of these types of incidents. And I admit, I could not be confident at that time, because they were happening, and it was a matter occasionally of morning despair of what we were doing on occasions around it.
"The problem is, of course, getting 33,000+ police officers and 4000+ PCSOs to exercise the judgement that you have at 9am in the morning. At the result of that, we did issue very precise guidelines to officers, did an awful lot there.
"John Yates said at the time to everyone – and we did a huge amount to get out this message because it was costing such a disproportionate loss of reputation for us – that there is no restriction on people taking photos in public places or any other building other than in very exceptional circumstances."
He admitted that he was aware of a recent disturbing incident that took place in Romford, which according to Doocey represented "eight minutes of two of your officers intimidating somebody".
She continued: "At one stage they say that they don't need a law to stop them photographing, but much more worrying, they don't need a law to take them away. It’s not a question in my view of… It’s so serious that it don’t think it should be somebody giving them words of advice and I don't also agree with you that it is a question of officers using their discretion.
"This was very black and white: Two of your officers who, despite the fact that I know you have given them guidelines because I have a copy of it, who totally disregarded them and were either so completely ignorant of the law, or decided to ignore the law – they were just going to say they knew the law better than the person they were talking to – they were very seriously intimidating. I find it quite worrying that I don't think you are taking this quite as seriously as I think you should be."
This forthright attack on the actions of some police officers appears to have put the Commissioner on the back foot. He pointed out that he had never claimed the officers in the Romford case had shown the right judgement and that he was not aware of a number of other incidents that Doocey alluded to, but that nonetheless he would be prepared to look at other cases to see what was going wrong.
Behind this lies the issue of whether these are just isolated incidents that occur around photography, or are evidence of a wider problem with police culture. At the time of the Romford incident, The Reg phoned one of the Met Police call centres to ask about the law on taking photos in London. The advice we received then – before the call handler decided to terminate the call - was seriously misleading and not consistent with the law as it stands.
We asked the Met for official comment as to why, despite the numerous efforts made by Assistant Commissioner John Yates and other serving officers to get the message about photography across, such incidents kept occurring. They suggested that these incidents were a very small part of the whole story of London policing, that to expect zero incidents was unrealistic, and that when such incidents occurred, they tended to be blown up out of all proportion by the press.
An alternative explanation, suggested to us by current and recently serving police officers with whom we have spoken, is that such incidents represent a far more disturbing aspect of police culture. They suggest that a small minority of officers see the law as being "what they say it is", and these officers are quite prepared to take their chances, on the basis that the number of times they will be caught out by being recorded is likely to be few and far between. ®