Filming the Police, Filming Us

Riot Police at the G20 Protests, London, 1st April 2009
Riot Police at the G20 Protests, London, 1st April 2009. Photo by PublicCCTV.

At the CentreRight blog (via LibCon), Graeme Archer has posted some ideas for reform of the police in light of the appalling Ian Tomlinson incident.
He begins

The police, particularly in London, appear to have forgotten that they police only with our consent. They are not the armed wing of the state. Some reforms are therefore long overdue

Of the suggestions he lists, I have mixed feelings about this pair:

  • Just as the storage of DNA from wholly innocent citizens is an outrage, so is the routine video-ing of members of the public by police officers. This must stop.
  • In contrast, members of the public must never be prevented from recording the activities of police officers.

I recall a point made by the former pedant Cleanthes, commenting on my Notes for Michael, who cited Robert Peel’s principles for policing:

An agent of the state???? That, Robert, in one succint phrase is the most daming indictment of the damage that has been done to the ethos of the Police over the last few decades.
Read Peel’s Principles here. Especially no.7:

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 who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.

Libertarian Ian Parker-Joseph made a similar point in the comments to the CentreRight post.
On the issue of filming, it seems to me we can’t have it both ways. If the police are indeed simply citizens in uniform, then they surely have the same rights to film people in public, as the rest of the citizenry? If we are allowed to film them, surely they should be allowed to film us, no? Placing a different set of restrictions on the police on this issue would violate Peel’s principle.
And before anyone brings up CCTV, Cleanthes and I have already discussed the difference between automated and eyeball policing at The Select Society.

Cycle Mounted Police at the National Theatre. CC Licence.
Cycle Mounted Police at the National Theatre.

8 Replies to “Filming the Police, Filming Us”

  1. I fear you slightly misrepresent the point of the filming.
    Yes, they (the police) are subject to the same laws and rules as ourselves, and the right to film in public should be one that is maintained.
    However, the difference lays in what is done with that film. Most individuals will want to capture personal memories of a particular day, or event or even publish that on a blog.
    However, we know that the police are not using their film for personal memories, that data is placed on a state database, to be used for ‘pre-emptive policing’, based upon a flawed National Intelligence model, very often wrongly categorising innocent people as radicals, anarchists or suspected terrorists, then there is real cause for concern.
    It is not the filming that should be highlighted, it is the uses for which that film is then put which requires the debate.

  2. No Rob. However noble the ancient principle, in the 21st century, the police in practice are not merely citizens in uniform, by virtue of the fact that they are granted extra-ordinary powers. Powers which creepingly have been extended over recent years. It is grossly disingenuous to overlook this fact, as some of those people you refer to have chosen to do.
    Police officers who, while on duty, film people on behalf of the constabulary are clearly doing something which private citizens, by definition, do not do.

  3. I think you miss the point, Clarice. The thrust of the article on ConservativeHome, seconded by Ian, Sunny, myself and (I suppose) Cleanthes, is precisely that the idea of police-as-citizens has been corrupted. I don’t think anyone is overlooking the fact of creeping powers, and if they appear to, its because they are talking about what a police force should be, not what it actually is.
    Ian, I don’t think it is the case that all private individuals are doing is posting “personal memories”. They are em>documenting the event, and collecting information too. Its not a Zapruder-like accident that these examples of police brutality are coming to light: ordinary citizens came prepared. The image I linked to above is by Public CCTV, which is clearly set up to monitor.
    However, I agree with your point that

    It is not the filming that should be highlighted, it is the uses for which that film is then put which requires the debate.

    My suggestion would be that surveillance footage collected by Police must have a shelf-life. If it is not used directly as evidence, then it should be wiped after a reasonably short period, in the same way that DNA samples should be destroyed if a person is found to be innocent.

  4. Rob,
    I rather liked my analogy on the difference. I had entirely forgotten about that.
    I agree with you: the problem is that the Police have been steadily corrupted away from Peel’s Principles. However, this is a separate issue to the varying rights regarding filming.
    Haven’t fully thought this through, but I would rather have a position where both sides are allowed to film in public. Currently however, ordinary citizens can now be arrested for filming the Police. This is so obviously utterly wrong that we need to ask/should be asking just how badly flawed is our representation in Parliament that it could ever have been suggested, let alone passed into law.
    On a wider note, even if the Police were to conform to Peel’s Principles, there would be argument for reducing their privacy rights when acting in uniform as they are exercising powers over individuals – it is imperative that those powers are kept in check. To be clear, if I were effecting a citizen’s arrest, I do not think that I could object to someone else filming me doing so – I am under the obligation to act entirely above board as I am attempt to curtail someone else’s liberty.

  5. No, Rob, I’m not sure that I have.
    If the “peels prinicples” are being invoked to justify police being allowed to film, then there is very clearly a large flaw in that argument, for precisely the reason you mention, namely that the police no longer apply them.
    This is what you said:
    On the issue of filming, it seems to me we can’t have it both ways…If we are allowed to film them, surely they should be allowed to film us, no?
    Which is why I responded with “No, Rob.”
    I also disagreed with this:
    Placing a different set of restrictions on the police on this issue would violate Peel’s principle.
    Only if you presume (incorrectly) that Peel’s principle still applies. Which it does not.

  6. Now I’m utterly confused.
    I’m not responding to the police. Its very clear Robert Peel has been forgotten by them.
    Instead, I’m responding to the (otherwise coherent) CentreRight post. That prescribes some new guidelines for the police, based on Peel’s vision as a First Principle. And then I’m saying that the proscription on the police using video is a violation that principle.
    This is a discussion over what the police should do, not what they are doing.

  7. Hi Rob
    Last night, a friend of mine who is being treated for depression had a relapse after we had been out for the evening. He had a calling from the angels so he kept speaking about and wanted to make his way to the local Pier, we can make our own assumptions why. He ran down the street and collapsed, three times I called an ambulance as I had waited over an hour in the street , on the third occasion I requested the police as he started to get out of hand, his eyes were so dialated it was obvious he needed serious mental health treatment of which I know from past that he spends weeks in a unit . When the Police arrived he decided to jump in front of the car to injure himself, thank goodness, he did’nt. He was hand cuffed against the car. I tried to expliane to one of the two officers that he had been unconsous for a while after banging his head and that 999 nurse advised to keep him warm, please can you place him in the car, I was told to keep quiet and that I knowing of his condition I should not allowed him to go out and drink. I tried to communicate again but got bounced back so took it up on my self to film the situation. The other officer told me not to be so Effing stupid other wise I will be arrested, they confiscated my phone. The reason I decided to film was because of the attitude of the Police towards myself and to ensure my friend was best treated for illness and not as a criminal of which was clearly decided from the minute the officers arrived he was. My girl friend was also there, I was sent away to get my coat from my home which was minutes away, when I returned the ambulance had arrived but it was decided that my friend was to a secure unit. I am going to complain about the Police attitude, however am I or was I with in my rights to film. The Police gave me my phone back once the incident was over but no footage.

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