Police apologise over CCTV in Muslim areas

By Danielle Dwyer,Wesley Johnson,Pa
Saturday 22 October 2011 22:47

A police force today apologised over a controversial CCTV scheme which saw more than 200 surveillance cameras installed in two largely Muslim neighbourhoods.

West Midland Police Chief Constable Chris Sims said he was "deeply sorry" that his force got the balance between counter-terrorism and excessive intrusion into people's lives "so wrong".

The cameras, some of which were hidden, sparked anger from civil liberties campaigners and residents in Sparkbrook and Washwood Heath in Birmingham, where they were predominantly installed.

Mr Sims said there were "serious shortcomings" in the force's management of the scheme, named Project Champion.

"I am sorry that we got such an important issue so wrong and deeply sorry that it has had such a negative impact on our communities," he said.

"My real regret is that Project Champion has undermined the strong relationships that exist between West Midlands Police and our communities that have been built up over many years.

"When I became Chief Constable in 2009 I put strengthening the trust and confidence of communities at the heart of the changes we would make to policing.

"I am committed to continuing with these changes and rebuilding any trust we have lost."

He went on: "At the heart of the controversy surrounding Project Champion sits a dilemma faced by police on behalf of wider society, how to find a balance between on the one hand the duty to offer protection from serious harm and on the other the risk of excessive intrusion and the danger of stigmatising a whole community.

"I am convinced that when Project Champion was conceived in 2007 this dilemma was clearly understood. However, somewhere between conception and delivery the critical balance was lost."

Speaking to reporters at a press conference at West Midlands Police headquarters, he added: "There were serious shortcomings shown by the West Midlands Police management of this project. This allowed the specification to move beyond the point where it was proportionate to the community safety risks and counter terrorism threats that it aimed to address.

"At the same time, the vital consultation that should have accompanied the scheme proved wholly inadequate."

Mr Sims said he fully accepted the findings of an independent review, conducted by Thames Valley Police, of his force's handling of the scheme.

It found "little evidence of thought being given to compliance with the legal or regulatory framework" before the cameras were put up.

The review concluded that: "The consultation phase was too little too late, and the lack of transparency about the purpose of the project has resulted in significant community anger and loss of trust."

Corinna Ferguson, legal officer at civil rights group Liberty which is representing a group of Sparkbrook residents affected by the cameras, said: "It is now clear that the concerns we raised when we threatened legal proceedings were well-founded.

"Project Champion disregarded legal obligations in relation to privacy and discrimination and was falsely sold to the local Muslim community as general crime prevention when it was purely a counter-terror measure.

"This divisive and counter-productive scheme must now end. The cameras must come down."

The campaign group's director Shami Chakrabarti added the report was "a devastating critique of Project Champion that will confirm the community's worst fears about blanket, discriminatory and unlawful surveillance.

"Whilst we welcome police attempts to learn from mistakes, there remain serious concerns about the Office for Security and Counter-terrorism that funded this scheme," she said.

"With a review of counter-terror policy under way, new ministers must remember the promises of Opposition and challenge the entrenched, unethical and counter-productive advice of hardened securocrats."

Big Brother Watch, which campaigns against excessive CCTV use and intrusions of privacy, said the project was "an expensive and oppressive waste of time that should never have gone ahead", as it called for those responsible to be held to account.

Its director, Alex Deane, said: "Vital civil liberties and any basic concept of privacy were both disregarded by this project.

"The report rightly concludes that the trust and confidence the public have in the police have been significantly undermined by it."

He added that the report "demonstrates that the cameras were totally unnecessary for anti-terror or anti-crime purposes - it was an expensive and oppressive waste of time that should never have gone ahead".

"But this review was specifically forbidden from blaming anyone or imposing sanctions for what happened," he said.

"When someone authorises secret, intrusive surveillance like this, both blame and punishment are not only suitable - they're required."

The scheme was organised by the Safer Birmingham Partnership, an initiative including West Midlands Police, Birmingham City Council and other agencies.

The partnership has acknowledged it should have been more explicit about the role of the city's Counter Terrorism Unit in setting up the network of 218 cameras.

The number plate recognition and CCTV cameras were financed under a counter-terrorism initiative but were marketed to locals as a general crime prevention measure.

Following angry public meetings in July, the Safer Birmingham Partnership issued a statement pledging a full and in-depth public consultation and West Midlands Police asked the Thames Valley force to conduct an independent review.

The cameras have not been switched on and have been covered with plastic bags to provide reassurance to local communities that footage is not being captured.

A Home Office spokesman said: "This project was agreed under a previous administration.

"Work is already under way on CCTV and ANPR (Automatic Number Plate Recognition) regulation and the Government will be bringing forward proposals on it."

Referring to relations between local people and the police, one community leader told the review team: "This has set relations back a decade."

Today's review found the scheme was set up in late 2007 "to enable the West Midlands counter terrorist unit to 'create a vehicle movement 'net' around two distinct geographical areas within the city of Birmingham"'.

These areas were "the focus of a large percentage of their counter-terrorist operations" and the system "was needed in order to carry out surveillance operations against identified suspects without having to follow them into and out of residential areas and therefore risk being compromised".

The project's funding, £3 million, was approved in March 2008.

In her review, Chief Constable Sara Thornton, of Thames Valley Police, said: "It was very clear from the documentary evidence that Project Champion was initiated as a counter-terrorist project but that senior officers saw the opportunity to improve the camera coverage in the area to reduce crime and disorder and improve community safety."

But she said project plans were not changed to reflect the new purpose, meaning "the crime reduction benefits that were being marketed would not have been delivered by the project".

Police chiefs missed opportunities "to provide challenging oversight", despite the fact a community meeting which raised concerns in April last year "should have been a red flag to senior officers, indicating a need to step back and think through the plans", she said.

"Overall the consultation phase was too little too late, and the lack of transparency about the purpose of the project has resulted in significant community anger and loss of trust."

Ms Thornton went on: "There is no doubt that the security situation in 2007 was very grave, and the threat intense, however the response that was developed under Project Champion raised significant human rights concerns and has undoubtedly led to a loss of trust and confidence in the community.

"The response to violent extremism needs to have the support of all communities and West Midlands Police and its Police Authority must address the restoration of confidence as a matter of urgency."

The proposal to create a security ring, similar to the one that exists in the City of London, in a semi-residential, predominantly Asian area "should have been challenged from the start", she said.

"Questions should have been asked about its proportionality, legitimacy, authority and necessity; and about the ethical values that underpinned the proposal."

She added that there was little evidence of any thought being given to compliance with the legal or regulatory framework.