Lawrence Looi, 31, who has been a staff photographer with news agency News Team for the last three years, had been sent to cover a protest on public roads outside the International Conference Centre on Thursday morning when he was approached by a police constable who objected to having been photographed.

According to the written complaint, a copy of which has been seen by EPUK, the officer held Looi by the upper arm and asked him to delete any photographs that had been taken of police officers. The officer also asked Looi to identify himself, but refused an offer to see Looi’s NPA-issued National Press Card.

“I remained calm and polite at all times and add that, at no point did I become aggressive”, writes Looi in the complaint. “I politely requested for his name and details, explaining my wish to lodge this complaint. I was then released and allowed to carry on with my work.”

Looi says he was then approached by a police sergeant who asked to view the photographs taken. Looi agreed to this, but refused a request from the sergeant for any photographs which showed identifiable police officers to be deleted.

When Looi refused, the complaint says: “[the police sergeant] then threatened to take my camera from me to delete the photographs, to quote…‘Do it or I’ll do it myself’. He then grabbed hold of my camera with the intention of doing so”

According to the complaint, the two police officers had said that images could compromise the safety of any officers pictured who may later undertake undercover operations.

Clear breach of ACPO guidelines

Looi says it was at this point that he agreed to delete the images. “I didn’t want the hassle of him trying to intimidate me and waste my time by detaining me”, he told EPUK. “In hindsight, I should have probably have let them arrest me.” Looi was unable to later recover the images using specialist recovery software.

In his letter to West Midlands Chief Constable Sir Paul Scott-Lee, Looi writes: “I believe that I was unlawfully physically detained …against my will and the direction to delete the photographs had no legal backing. I only complied to save further detention and aggravation and because I had other urgent work to complete.”

The incident is a clear breach of the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) national police-press guidelines which state: “Members of the media have a duty to take photographs and film incidents and [police officers] have no legal power or moral responsibility to prevent or restrict what they record.”

“It is a matter for their editors to control what is published or broadcast, not the police. Once images are recorded, [the police] have no power to delete or confiscate them without a court order, even if [the police] think they contain damaging or useful evidence.”

The guidelines also warn that any police officer who deletes a photographer’s images could face criminal, civil or disciplinary action.

Long list of controversial incidents

The case is the latest in a series of controversial incidents between police officers and photographers, and comes just a week after the Metropolitan Police agreed an out-of-court settlement with injured protest photographer Marc Vallee.

Under the 1984 Police and Criminal Evidence Act, journalistic materials such as a camera memory card are classified as “special procedure materials”, and are subject to certain safeguards under law. However, solicitor Mike Schwartz of Bindman and Partners has previously warned that police are using their powers of arrest to gain access to these materials.

Speaking at the 2007 NUJ Photographers’ Conference, he said:“The police are arresting journalists, seizing their equipment, treating them as suspects, looking at their photographs, taking copies, perhaps returning them to them, taking no further action often (but not always) and they’ve got, straight away, what they want.”

West Midlands Police were unavailable for comment on the incident.


One of a series of controversial incidents

Looi’s incident joins a long list of controversial incidents where police have been accused of misusing their powers to try to control press photographers:

March 2006: A joint two-year effort between the British Press photographers Association (BPPA), the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) and the Chartered Institute of Journalists (CIJ) results in the first police-press guidelines being agreed with London’s Metropolitan Police.

March 2006: While photographing an armed incident in Nottingham, photographer Alan Lodge is arrested firstly for assault, then de-arrested, before being arrested and de-arrested for breach of the peace, and finally being arrested and later charged with obstruction. Lodge, who helped draft the guidelines used by the police for dealing with the press, was later found guilty .

August 2006: During a terror alert, police at Heathrow Airport forced two staff press photographers to delete images from their camera memory cards. All photographers arriving at the airport were banned from taking pictures of the incident.

September 2006: Milton Keynes News staff photographer Andy Handley is arrested for obstruction after refusing to hand over his equipment after photographing a traffic accident. Police later apologise, and describe his arrest as “a serious misjudgement”.

October 2006: Photographer Marc McMahon is arrested for breaching the peace while photographing an incident on Newcastle’s Tyne Bridge where a man was threatening to commit suicide. Despite showing his press card, police unlawfully told McMahon he could not take photographs, and when he continued to do so, he was arrested. McMahon’s camera bag containing £10,000 of camera equipment was later stolen after being left at the scene by police officers. A court found McMahon not guilty of obstructing a police officer, and said that he had acted “professionally”. McMahon later sued the police for the loss of his equipment.

October 2006: Photojournalist Marc Vallée is hospitalised and left unable to work for a month with injuries sustained following police action at a demonstration in Parliament Square. The Metropolitan Police later agree an out-of-court settlement with Vallée, but do not accept liability.

November 2006: After being photographed, off-duty SO14 officer Paul Page pursues Sun freelance photographer Scott Hornby, ramming his car to a standstill then forcing him out of the car at gunpoint. Page is later found not guilty of dangerous driving, possessing a firearm with intent to cause fear, and false imprisonment after telling a jury that he thought the photographer was a hitman.

April 2007: The police-press guidelines used by the Metropolitan Police are adopted by all other police forces in Britain.

September 2007: Freelance photographer Mike Wells is stopped and searched three times and had his phone taken while covering the Defence Systems and Equipment International exhibition in London. Despite showing his press card, officers told Wells that he was being searched on the grounds that he was a person likely to cause criminal damage such as graffiti.

November 2007: Amateur photographer Phil Smith was stopped from photographing the Christmas lights being switched on by police at a public event in Ipswich, and asked whether he had a “licence to use the camera”. A police spokesperson later said that officers had been “overzealous in the execution of their duty”