Stuart Franklin: This behaviour by the police reminds me of Brixton in the 1980s

Policies like this endanger the mutual respect between police and the public
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The Independent Online

I am well aware of the tendency for police officers to stop and question photographers under Section 44 legislation – it happened to me.

It was about three days before Barack Obama's first visit to Britain and I was on a journalistic assignment in Regent's Park, taking pictures of where he would be staying. I had quite a lot of professional photography equipment with me yet I was stopped and questioned by police officers who wanted to know what I was doing and why I was there. When they had finished speaking with me they gave me a form with my details. I understand they were simply doing their job, but they were very much targeting me as a likely and potential criminal.

There was a lot of resentment towards the police in the 1980s, around the time of the Brixton riots, when the police were deemed to be targeting black people. They seemed to think that all black people were criminals. Nowadays it seems to be the same kind of label they apply to photographers and people with cameras.

The police are using a piece of specific acts or pieces of legislation designed to deal with a specific threat and are generalising it to the extent that all photographers are feeling criminalised.

What we require is intelligent policing. Clearly the police need powers to deal with the threat of terrorism and I would never dream of suggesting they get rid of legislation which is designed to protect the public and save lives.

But officers need to use their power sensibly. They need to ask themselves what could someone taking a harmless picture of a Christmas tree or a tourist attraction possibly be doing that would endanger the state?

I travel to America quite a lot and I have also been stopped there two or three times for taking pictures outside courtrooms and baseball stadiums. The police in the US are quite aggressive towards photographers and hassle them.

In this country we have always had quite gentle policing, policing by consent. It is a basic principle and it has brought the police respect. Obviously we want to keep that, but policies like this endanger the mutual respect between police and the public.

People can say that if they are doing nothing wrong then photographers should not have a problem with being stopped and questioned, but it is an intrusion into civil liberties. It is like the police suddenly deciding that, because they know some people are liable to drink and drive, they are going to stop every car in London.

It wouldn't work and neither does stopping every photographer.

We need to strike a balance which reduces the threat, but also ensures a continuing climate of respect between the law-abiding public and the police.

The author is a member and former president of the Magnum Photos photographic cooperative. He is best known for his shot of a protester standing in front of a tank in China's Tiananmen Square