Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Searched under Terrorism Act

Section 44 of the Terrorism Act gives the police the right to stop and search people who are taking photos in public places. Well, there I was next to the Churchill statue in Parliament Sq this morning, waiting for some MPs and candidates to turn up and have their pictures taken when I found a policeman standing next to me. I was actually working on my blackberry at that point.

Anyway, he asked me what I was doing, asked for some for of ID (he had to make do with my debit card) and looked inside my bag. It contained one Nikon SLR and one Sony video camera, a notebook, a pen and a pair of sunglasses and two microphones and spare tapes for the camera. He didn't ask to see the contents of the camera. All it contained however was 100 photos of John Barrett MP taken half an hour earlier.

The policeman filled in a form and in the process asked if I was "white British". It left me wondering if I were checked just so the numbers of non-whites stopped and searched didn't look too disproportionate.

Parliament Sq is of course full of foreign tourists snapping away at one of the most famous buildings in the world. And the image of Parliament is already spread around the globe. Quite what can be gained from stopping and searching in this way and in this location is not clear. Anyway, I cooperated. My details were checked. They were happy I was not an Islamic bomber or a member of the militant wing of the Green Allotments Liberation Front (or the Front for the Liberation of Green Allotments!)

I really wonder whether or not this is a good use of police time. Is it effective? Is it being used sensibly? I was under the impression that the last time there was a hoohaa about section 44, the government said it should be used sparingly and sensitively.

Given that so many photographers have been stopped and searched under this legislation, I'm not sure whether it should be a badge of honour or treated as an infringement of my right to go about my legitimate activities. Discuss.

Sent via BlackBerry


Caron said...

Frankly I think it's ridiculous. If they search everyone with a blackberry around Westminster they'll be there a long time and not catch any terrorists. It's a dangerous waste of time in my view.

I think Liberty's guide to your rights under Sec 44 is interesting and helpful if you want to take this further.

You can also complete a monitoring form for them so they can keep an eye on how this unnecessarly sweeping power is being used.

kevin scott said...

Why do you think the police stop and search so many 'non-whites' under this Act?

Niklas said...

You were perfectly within your rights to refuse to identify yourself; you only have to give name and address if arrested.

The policeman filled in a form and in the process asked if I was "white British". It left me wondering if I were checked just so the numbers of non-whites stopped and searched didn't look too disproportionate.

Sadly you're right: the police have been caught randomly searching white people just to even out the numbers, see Jack of Kent's fantastic post on Section 44:

Oh, and given that the ECHR has ruled that Section 44 is in breach of the Human Rights Act you might want to refuse a search if they try again - though they would probably arrest you for your "impertinence".

Under these circumstances I would cooperate grudgingly, as Liberty suggests.

And like Caron I think this kind of stop-and-search is a thoroughly dangerous waste of police time and an unacceptable treatment of law-abiding citizens.

John said...

I'd be happy to be stopped and searched around sensitive targets since we are on a 'severe' terrorism alert. What's a few minutes of our time? You & I may not be terrorists but the guy with the blackberry a few metres away may be doing a recce. We should support the police and let them get on with the job - so long as they are polite and professional, what's the big deal? Non-whites are probably being stopped more often because that's generally been the profile of islamic terrorists up til now - it's not racist, it's reality. Recently we've heard that non-asian (female)islamic suicide bombers are preparing to be deployed, hence perhaps the police not making assumptions about anybody and eyeing everyone with suspicion. The police are trying to protect us from a real threat, we should let them get on with it. We'd all be moaning if there was an attack on a symbolic target like Westminster and the security forces had done nothing to try to prevent it.

Niklas said...

@John: I take your point, but how can the police tell the difference between a tourist's snaps and a terrorist's reconnaisance photos? And would any terrorist need to do reconnaisance of such an iconic building as the Houses of Parliament anyway?

John said...

They need to record (video/photograph/note down) comings & goings - numbers and location of security staff, location of CCTV cameras, blind spots, timings/access points of contractors vehicles, staff handovers etc etc. All the stuff you can't get from the internet but from human intelligence.