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Birmingham police officer 'forced press photographer to delete images'

2 March 2008 - EPUK

A photographer from a Birmingham-based photographic agency has raised a complaint with West Midlands Police following an incident in which he says a police officer forced him to delete images from his memory card.

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”

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We need to stand together on this, get arrested, and fight them in court, many officers have no understanding of the law, and our rights as news gatherers is being undermined. We need to fight them in the courts. They need to learn. Only by getting them in front of the judiciary will they actually learn what they can and cannot do.

Comment 1: Burgy, 3 March 2008, 01:08 am

Having been ‘detained’ and had details taken for photographing the front of a bus that had hit 2 school girls on a crossing by a traffic officer recently, about an hour after the incident, bus having been moved ~100m, I have nothing but contempt for the level of Police training in these matters. The claim I was ‘potentially interfering with a crime scene’ was the excuse, though he seemed more concerned with being seen to be doing something. As for getting yourself arrested and taking them on through the courts, fine, IF you like the idea of taking on “the biggest armed gang in the country” (acting Hampshire Police sgt. returning from the G8 protest surpression in Scotland).
Witness the Police ‘racing’ each other on the public highways in their unmarked traffic cars, they now firmly believe they ARE above the law.

Comment 2: Niel, 3 March 2008, 09:30 am

Lawrence is a colleague of mine and over the weekend I had a similar encounter with the West Midlands Constabulary. Whilst I was not forced to delete any images or physically detained as in Lawrence’s case, I was asked to cease taking pictures or run the risk of having my camera and or memory card seized. I was on assignment in the early hours of Saturday morning taking pictures for an article on binge drinking. I was out with a reporter in Birmingham City Centre when we came across the tail end of an altercation outside the Oceana nightclub in. I proceeded to take pictures of the police arresting those involved and of a paramedic treating a youth with a head wound. I was approached by a female officer from the West Midlands Constabulary (PC Beddall 0788) who enquired as to why I was taking pictures. I produced my NPA issued press card and explained that I was taking pictures to illustrate an article on binge drinking. She told me that if I did not cease taking pictures she would seize my camera and or memory card. I told her that she would need to obtain a court order in order to do such a thing to which she replied that she didn’t as my pictures could be used in court as evidence and ‘they do it all the time’. After a minute or so discussing the issue I was approached by a male officer who very aggressively told me to stop my back chat otherwise I would be arrested. The female officer and I agreed to disagree and we went on our way. The police are blatantly unaware as to our rights and duty as photojournalists to take photographs and film incidents which are in the public interest.

Comment 3: Lee Sanders, 3 March 2008, 07:20 pm

I was in totnes early last year taking photos when i saw an incedent involving an arrest so i took photos of it, i was aproched by a police officer who demanded to see what i had taken pictures of. when i showed him i was told to delete them or i would be arrested. i did delete them but recovered them when i got home. i am only an amature photographer and didnt know the law on street photography then.

Comment 4: Richard clarke, 3 March 2008, 08:26 pm

I spoke with PC Beddell today, and after speaking with the West Midlands Police legal services, she admits to being in the wrong. She also admitted to me that the police, on the whole, are unaware as to journalist’s rights and the guidelines surrounding the taking of photographs/filming of incidents which are in the public interest! She also promised to speak with her colleagues and bring their attention to the ACPO guidelines.

Comment 5: Lee Sanders, 4 March 2008, 04:52 pm

After the Jean Charles de Meneses murder police illegally searched the estates and escorted off site any photographers found! Outside of the cordon. I was arrested and held for carrying “two powerful cameras” at Liverpool st station (section 44 of the prevention of terrorism), and once just a few seconds after leaving Downing Street. I have been held, searched, detained, told not to do my job, told to delete my photographs, told not to photograph one thing after another… Too depressing.

Comment 6: James, 7 March 2008, 03:00 am

When I returned to photography and using a digital camera on the street I too was stopped a number of times by security and once by police, always in a public place (Birmingham) I realised looking like and taking photographs in a professional manor would get me attention in a way it had not many years before. I began to think of ways to change how I took photographs, the most important was probably not putting the camera to my eyes and using chest, side and hip shots and only when I was about to take a photo, the rest of the time I had the camera strapped to my wrist with a small 20mm Nikon prime and no lens hood. It took me ages to get decent results causing frustration and depression along the way, then I took a number of hip shots that made me realise that I could do it and my confidence grew.

The change on the street from when I worked in the eighties is simply scary, there are many hundreds of times more threat to peoples lives by going to supermarkets and buying foods which damages health than any photographer on the street, its paranoia.

Comment 7: chris, 3 April 2008, 10:15 am

Just wondered. What if you are not a professional photographer? Could you photograph a Police incident? Who is to say that I’m not acting ‘freelance’ and wish to sell the images on?

Anyone know where I would stand on this?

Comment 8: L Pen, 9 May 2008, 11:45 am

We have all be careful to not let the police and the authorities “divide and conquer” by spliting professionals and “keen amateurs” apart on this issue. Like a London cab driver calling for special dispensation while driving, the sound of professional journos calling for and accepting ACPO guidance language on media accreditation and UK press cards sets a dangerous precedent and gives the power-hungry an easier ride.

Will those who negiotiate and educate the police please remember that the right to photograph and report on public events is a general one and to not require accreditation or other defacto licensing.

Comment 9: Peter, 23 June 2008, 12:07 pm

How strange that normal folk can have so much grief when we are surrounded by cctv.

Comment 10: Jezz, 23 June 2008, 02:20 pm

The freelance/professional/amateur debate is an intresting one as we move into the realm of ‘citizen journalism’.

It occurs to me with the proliferation of 5mp+ cameras in phones and with more and more newspapers and even TV stations requesting user content of events, incidents and everyday life, more and more people are potentially going to run into this problem.

Here in Leeds we have had a number of serious amateur photographers stopped by the police and issued with stop and search forms for street photography.

Interestingly the grounds for stopping have been attributed to ‘“Grey Hair”:http://benneh.net/blog/index.php/2008/03/18/account-for-presence/’

This is one of several account here and Flickr groups.

Comment 11: Nik, 24 June 2008, 08:29 am

With regard to Peter’s comment (#9), I totally agree that the ‘different rules for different groups’ guidelines are divisive (perhaps as intended) and ignore the fact that by and large hobbyists enjoy the same rights to photograph as we in the media have when doing our jobs.

Item 6 of the Met guidelines states:

“Members of the media do not need a permit to photograph or film in public places.”

Which those with a particular mindset might choose to interpret as meaning that non-media people do not have the same rights and require some piece of paper. The obsession with needing to identify yourself as a bona fide photgrapher (whatever that may be) suggests that we are collectively on the back foot, and are being coralled into accepting a limited version of rights we already own, dispensed at the whim and largesse of the Police.

Comment 12: Mark, 26 June 2008, 11:21 am

I am a keen amateur photographer and an ex Police Officer who served 10 years with Surrey Police. At no point during my 2 years probationary training or an any subsequent training sessions during my 10 years service did I every receive any training on the law relating to photographers and my expected actions or legal powers.With the explosion of digital cameras and phones clear guide lines need to be laid down and the proper training given to Police Officers. I find it abhorrent that some Police Officers have taken such unlawful action. Only once did I order a photographer to stop taking photos, that was at the scene of a sudden death (drowning) he was attempting to photograph the body bag etc and the family of the deceased were getting very distressed. I spoke to the photographer and requested he leave the area due to the distress he was causing the family, I spoke to him respectfully and he complied, I rather suspect that he had already got the shot he wanted and that is why he left peacefully. I am glad to say that the local papers did not print the images he took. But I knew I had no right to ask him to delete them at scene of the incident. Police Officers need to understand the law and I hope photographers that are unlawfully treated take the appropriate action complaint or lawsuit as necessary until the Police Service learns what they can and can’t do.

Comment 13: Simon, 2 July 2008, 11:54 am

If faced with the above situation (and it seems we’re all getting more an more attention these days for just doing our job) may I suggest the following:

1) Familiarise yourself with the way your camera creates folders. If not being closely watched simply create a new blank folder and show the PC the screen that says “no images” when you view it.

2) Delete the images using the delete key. Do not touch the card further but swap it out and keep it safe. Run a decent (i.e. Sandisk or Image Rescue) recovery program on it when you get back to the office and you should be able to recover the files.

They can’t demand you format the card as you may have other work on it..

Comment 14: Evenin' All, 15 September 2008, 11:37 pm

I too have been harassed on a number of times when taking photos in birmingham , 2 jobworths stoped me from takinig pic`s of the empty sand pit saying that there is a yellow alert on and enploying that i could be taking photos of the libery .one asked to see my photos and said if i don`t stop he would arrest me. i have had a lot of secuity bothering me about permits .bigbrother just got biger .

Comment 15: k. rogers, 25 September 2009, 11:53 pm

Northern Police have issued this, it sounds very much like what has been going on down South for years


Northern Constabulary launches Project Kraken in bid to combat the threat of terrorism at ports

Comment 16: MB, 20 September 2010, 06:50 pm

your_ip_is_blacklisted_by sbl.spamhaus.org

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