Police forces across the country have been warned to stop using anti-terror laws to question and search innocent photographers after The Independent forced senior officers to admit that the controversial legislation is being widely misused.
The strongly worded warning was circulated by the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) last night. In an email sent to the chief constables of England and Wales's 43 police forces, officers were advised that Section 44 powers should not be used unnecessarily against photographers. The message says: "Officers and community support officers are reminded that we should not be stopping and searching people for taking photos. Unnecessarily restricting photography, whether from the casual tourist or professional, is unacceptable."
Chief Constable Andy Trotter, chairman of Acpo's media advisory group, took the decision to send the warning after growing criticism of the police's treatment of photographers.
Writing in today's Independent, he says: "Everyone... has a right to take photographs and film in public places. Taking photographs... is not normally cause for suspicion and there are no powers prohibiting the taking of photographs, film or digital images in a public place."
He added: "We need to make sure that our officers and Police Community Support Officers [PCSOs] are not unnecessarily targeting photographers just because they are going about their business. The last thing in the world we want to do is give photographers a hard time or alienate the public. We need the public to help us.
"Photographers should be left alone to get on with what they are doing. If an officer is suspicious of them for some reason they can just go up to them and have a chat with them – use old-fashioned policing skills to be frank – rather than using these powers, which we don't want to over-use at all."
Section 44 of the Terrorism Act allows the police to stop and search anyone they want, without need for suspicion, in a designated area. The exact locations of many of these areas are kept secret from the public, but are thought to include every railway station in and well-known tourist landmarks thought to be at risk of terrorist attacks.
Many photographers have complained that officers are stopping them in the mistaken belief that the legislation prohibits photographs in those areas. Forces who use Section 44, most commonly London's Metropolitan Police, have repeatedly briefed and guided frontline officers on how to use the powers without offending the public.
But privately senior officers are "exasperated, depressed and embarrassed" by the actions of junior officers and, particularly, PCSOs who routinely misuse the legislation. One source said that an "internal urban myth" had built up around police officers who believe that photography in Section 44 areas is not allowed.
The aberrations have resulted in nearly 100 complaints to the police watchdog. Since April 2008 every complaint made by a member of the public about the use of Section 44 powers, unlike other complaints, must be forwarded to the Independent Police Complaints Commission. In the past 18 months there have been 94 complaints. Eight of these specifically mentioned the fact that the issue arose around photography. Acpo's communiqué has been welcomed by rank-and-file police officers and photographers alike.
Simon Reed, the chairman of the Police Federation, which represents England and Wales's 140,000 rank-and-file officers, said: "I think some new guidance will be welcome."
New orders: The message to officers
This is the message circulated by Andy Trotter, of the Association of Chief Police Officers, to police forces in England and Wales.
"Officers and PCSOs are reminded that we should not be stopping and searching people for taking photos.
"There are very clear rules around how stop-and-search powers can be used. However, there are no powers prohibiting the taking of photographs, film or digital images in a public place. Therefore members of the public and press should not be prevented from doing so.
"We need to co-operate with the media and amateur photographers. They play a vital role as their images help us identify criminals.
"We must acknowledge that citizen journalism is a feature of modern life and police officers are now photographed and filmed more than ever.
"However, unnecessarily restricting photography, whether from the casual tourist or professional is unacceptable and worse still, it undermines public confidence in the police service."
A personal viewpoint: 'I was reminded why I left the police'
I spent 27 years as a PC in the Met, but it was during a trip to my old police station with a friend late last year that I was starkly reminded why I eventually decided to leave.
Since 2003 I have been living in France, where I coach a children's rugby team not far from Toulouse. But last December my sister needed to see a specialist in Harley Street so I went with her and a rugby friend of mine back to London for the week.
While my sister went to the doctors I suggested to my friend, Will, that we should go and take a look at Albany Street police station near Regent's Park, which was where I spent my first eight years as a copper.
It's the kind of station that looks like something out of Dixon of Dock Green, it has a lovely little blue police light outside the entrance and I asked Will whether he'd take a picture of me standing underneath it. Within seconds we found ourselves approached by two PCSOs who told us that we were not allowed to take photographs of police stations.
I didn't want to be a sad old git by telling stories of my past and the nostalgia I felt for the place. So instead I said: "We're tourists. We want a picture of that Blue lamp, it's iconic and it represents London bobbies." But they didn't want any of it and ordered us to stop taking photographs. The second PCSO started asking Will for his details which he began to give before I informed him that he was under no obligation to do so.
I'd clearly failed what the police call "the attitude test" because they radioed for back-up from inside the police station and we were soon joined by a police constable. Often during my time as a policeman I would hear this policy. If someone was bolshy, argumentative or challenging in any manner, refusing to play by the police rules and not willing to show deference, then they had failed the "attitude test".
I guess I hoped the PC would show more common sense but he repeated the same line, that the police station was in a "sensitive zone" and that we had to stop taking photographs. Eventually we gave up and walked away.