Police using anti-terror laws to search photographers

Britain’s police forces are using anti-terrorism legilsation to stop and search professional photographers in public places, according to a report in the British Journal of Photography.

Section 44 of the 2000 Terrorism Act gives police officers the power to stop anyone within an authorised area and search for articles which could be used in connection with terrorism.

The BJP has received countless complaints from photographers, who claim that the powers have been used by the police to stop photographers shooting in public places.

The BJP lodged Freedom of Information requests with 46 police forces, asking if they had requested authorisation to use the Section 44 powers in their own regions.

From the research, it appears that Derbyshire is the only force where police officers have never used Section 44 for stop and search.

In total, 29 of the 46 chief constables declined BJP‘s requests for information, while five partially answered questions claiming they had used the powers but were not in a position to communicate further details. Three chief constables – in Cleveland, Dyfed-Powys and Kent – did not return their responses, which BJP understands is in breach of FoI protocol.

Only nine forces released the information requested, including Derbyshire, which appears to be the only force where police officers have never used Section 44 for stop and search. In fact, the only time Derbyshire’s chief constable asked for the powers was in July 2007 “for the whole of the county of Derbyshire”, following the failed car bomb attacks on London and Glasgow, after which the whole of Britain was given clearance to use S44 powers. Usually, chief constables have to apply for specific areas of their county, with each application valid for up to 28 days.

Among the counties that refused to disclose the information, the Cambridgeshire force went as far as to argue that BJP could be itself a terrorist organisation. It justified its stance saying: “By careful placing of information requests, planners of future attacks could use intelligence gained to divert attention away from the intended target, or indeed towards a particular area to gain maximum effect.”

It added: “If a terrorist is able to control when and where a S44 authority is engaged and the information published; members of the public may be ‘herded’ into another area by this: this may be the site of the intended attack or secondary device.”

Surrey’s chief constable, among those who refused to answer, wrote: “The police service will never disclose information that would directly assist actual or potential offenders to commit criminal acts, thus materially damaging the legitimate needs of law enforcement and placing the public at extra risk.”

However, this point of view was not shared by counties such as Hampshire, where the powers were requested on 103 occasions prior to April 2009, according to the area’s chief constable, who found no objection in releasing the information. According to the BJP, if “the 103 demands were consecutive, that would mean Hampshire Constabulary has been requesting the special powers since the Terrorism Act 2000 was enacted on February 19, 2001.”

Only two police forces did not have to answer BJP‘s requests as the use of the exceptional powers has clearly been previously advertised. Both the Metropolitan Police and the City of London Police confirmed that S44 authorisations had been requested every 28 days for the past eight years, with more than 100,000 people stopped and searched in the capital last year.

BJP‘s report comes less than a month after the Home Office issued a circular “Photography and Counter-Terrorism Legislation” that makes it clear that anti-terror laws should not be used to stop people taking photographs on an ad hoc basis.

BJP‘s FoI initiative is part of our ongoing “Not A Crime” campaign, which aims to raise awareness about the increasing restrictions imposed on professional photographers in the UK and overseas.

Click here to join the campaign.

Click here to read the BJP‘s file of FoI applications, county by county.

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