Photographs and police officers world wide have a pretty tortured history, even more so since the rise of anti terrorist legislation. I should declare an interest — I’m one of those amateur photographers you hear complaining that the police have stopped them taking photos for somewhat iffy reasons, in my case it was a potential breach of the peace (“but we’ll let you off with a warning”). The experience has utterly changed how I look at the police ever since.
There’s a rather well reported example of one of the BBC’s press photographers “having his collar felt” as he took photographs of St Paul’s Cathedral in London. You hear stories of people taking photos of the blue light on police stations receiving similar treatment. There’s been motions in Parliament to clarify the lack of powers that the police actually have to stop regular people taking photos. The Home Office has given guidance (sadly in my view leaving it down to the regions rather than actually giving guidance for the whole country). The G20 protests in London are a smörgåsbord of examples which are still only coming to light – the Metropolitan Police Press Office sending out letters demanding that photographs of police officers hiding their badge numbers be destroyed for one. This is the background I read this particular story on — the apparent view that photographers are terrorists planning something.
The basic facts are that four, presumably, drunk young women were involved in an alleged assault in a bar on a Saturday night two weeks ago and were taken to a Staffordshire police station to give statements. That’s perfectly normal and fine. However, something happened and they ran amok as only drunk people can. The end result is that a lot of reasonably salacious images ended up Facebook. Egg was on face and so on. The Tax Payers Alliance absolutely hates the wasted police resources they feel this represents and they’re getting their boot in too.
Assistant Chief Constable Mick Harrison is quoted in today’s Metro (Tuesday, December 15, 2009, pg 7) as saying he was “extremely disappointed” by the event. “Officers made attempts to talk to the women about their behaviour and to stop them taking photographs for security reasons — these were not heeded or firmly enforced.”
This is a relatively innocuous quote but, given that the pictures in question were the result of party goers putting on police hats and taking photos of each other on their phones we should probably assume that there was not exactly an Al Qaeda attack going on. I think the idea that there was a security risk (except, perhaps, to the male officers’ virtue) is actually pretty laughable. I know that there really isn’t the whole story expressed in the dozen or so newspaper reports over the last couple of days so I thought I’d do it properly and do some research. Unfortunately Staffordshire police force doesn’t seem to have any way for members of the public to ring up and ask the police questions, it seems limited to reporting crimes or a press office. I resorted to calling the press office on the off chance but that naturally leads to the ” ‘Hello, I’m hoping you could answer a couple of questions’ ‘Are you press?’ ‘No’ ‘Well no then’ ” conversation that doesn’t really help anyone. In the absence of other information it sounds like it’s just a regular police station where you question witnesses, fill out your reports and hold antisocial drunks overnight as opposed to a nuclear silo.
It’s absolutely, undeniably not what the police should be doing on a Saturday night and it’s very embarrassing for the police but I think we really need to avoid defining everything that embarrasses the police as a security risk.