Secret Policemen are having a ball at our expense
The Big Issue, December 2008
By Heather Brooke
Once upon a time people complained of rarely seeing a bobby on the beat. Now they’re lucky to get a full glimpse of a policeman’s face.
Watching the video footage of police searching the office of MP Damian Green I noticed that practically the first words out of the investigator’s mouth were: “turn that camera off.’ This was in response to another MP daring to film the police in action as they searched and seized Green’s possessions without a warrant.
According to the Tory party, the posting of the video footage was delayed because the Metropolitan Police demanded that the officers’ faces be blanked out. Why?
Robert Peel created the principals of policing when the Metropolitan Police was first created in 1829. He ensured every police officer be issued a badge number, to assure individual accountability. His most famous principal:
Police, at all times, should maintain a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and the public are the police; the police being only members of the public…
That’s worth keeping in mind as the police increasingly demand special rights which they deny the law-abiding citizen. Here’s an example: Go to any protest or an event held outside Parliament and you will see police officers filming people who have committed no crime yet if any Joe Public attempts to film the police he will quickly find himself harassed, threatened with arrest or have his camera seized or film deleted.
Go into any police station and you will find yourself under the gaze of CCTV, yet if you dare to get out your own camera you’ll be ordered to stop immediately; if you persist you’ll be threatened and likely ejected from the building.
Don’t be fooled. This is not about security. It is about power. We know it’s about power because if citizens wear masks, the police force their removal. Being able to identify someone is the primary way of holding that person to account.
It is well documented that people behave differently when granted anonymity, and not usually for the better. In a crowd or under the orders of a powerful leader, people will commit all sorts of outrageous behaviour, say all kinds of offensive things if they feel cloaked by the mantel of anonymity.
The police have a monopoly on force so it is right that in a democracy, police officers are individually accountable for how they exercise this force. Anonymity invites abuse. Yet police forces are increasingly demanding anonymity for their officers. The officers who shot Jean Charles de Menezes remain unidentified, as do the officers who killed Derek Bennett, 29, when they thought his cigarette lighter was a handgun.
I’ve worked as crime reporter in the US and the default position there is the opposite: police are identified by name and their photographs are published unpixilated. Anonymity is granted rarely and only if there is a quantifiable threat to the officer. Even FBI agents are named in court cases. Individual accountability is the cornerstone of public service effectiveness. Common to all totalitarian systems is that agents are hidden. Is this what we want from our police?
It is not yet illegal to film the police or to disclose information about an individual officer’s behaviour. But it soon will be. Part 7, item 76 of the new Counter-Terrorism Act 2008 would make it a criminal offence to elicit information about a constable which is ‘of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism’ or ‘publishes or communicates any such information.’
That last bit is incredibly wide-ranging and completely open to abuse. It allows the police to decide what should and shouldn’t be published about them. Such a law would effectively criminalise the disclosure of such vital pubic interest matters such as the behaviour of the Met Police in the immediate aftermath of the de Menezes shooting. And bear in mind, too, that the bar is now set low on what is considered an ‘act of terrorism’: heckling outside the Labour Party conference, wearing a T-shirt criticizing the Prime Minister, daring to publish empirical facts about Government policies, all that’s been deemed a threat to our security.
The police need to get back to basic Peelian Principals. They can’t expect to have the trust of the public when they are ashamed even to show their faces.
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