Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Saturday, 18 April 2009

Technology will force the Police to change

The news that Ian Tomlinson now most likely died of internal bleeding has once again thrown the spotlight on the Police and their tactics during the G20 protests. Indeed the Metropolitan Police Comissioner has now launched a review of police tactics which I welcome. I particularly welcome the public statement that officers should always wear their identification. It seemed a bit sinister to me that some officers involved in the G20 protests had either not worn them, or they were covered up or otherwise obscured.

I am a big supporter of the Police. I know they do a very difficult job often in very difficult circumstances. On the few occasions I have had dealings with them (as a victim of various crimes over the years) they have always been very courteous and professional and I have felt like they have done their best for me and that they were very much on my side.

However, I know that not everybody's experience of the Police is as positive as mine. There have been numerous examples recently of Police officers forcing people to delete photographs that they have taken in public areas. This story reported in The Guardian last week is typical of the sort of thing I mean where a tourist taking photos of modern architecture inclusing bus and tube stations was forced to delete his photographs. I saw on our local news in the South here a few months ago that a man who collected photographs of the insignias of different police forces took pictures of the one outside a police station locally and before he knew what was happening, several officers came out from the station, surrounded him and forced him to delete the pictures. Once it became a news story, a senior officer apologised and confirmed that what the man had been doing was not a crime, in spite of what the officers had implied. I apologise that I cannot currently find a link to this story.

A few months ago, someone on another blog pointed me towards a couple of youtube clips that had been filmed by members of the public.

The first one is somebody filming officers from his own garden questioning a cyclist. When one of the officers clocks that they are being filmed they come over to the cameraman on his own property and try to get him to stop filming. the cameraman stands up for himself and insists he is doing nothing wrong. The officers insist he is breaking the law but he refuses to stop filming and after calling back to base, the officers eventually seem to realise that they are in the wrong and walk away. He calls after them requesting to know their identities but they do not respond to him.

The second clip is more shocking to me. A filmmaker has put together a 6 minute piece which interperses him being harassed by two police officers (I think they may be special constables rather than full police officers) when he is filming in London with commentary on what is and isn't legal (filming in a lublic place is legal). The attitude of one of the officers is very aggressive. Straight away he starts shouting, putting his hand up over the lens and demanding to know why he is filming and also he wants to the filmmaker's ID and barks at him to "Give me your ID" as if we are in some sort of facist state. When the filmmaker stands his ground and insists he is not breaking the law he is told to "Shut up" by the aggressive officer before they finally walk off.

A cursory glance on youtube will find many more examples of this sort of thing. I highlight them here not to make a particular point about the incidents, there are bound to be overzealous police officers occasionally as you get in any other profession and doubtless they often have to deal with much less reasonable people than shown in these clips, and maybe they were just having a bad day - it can happen to all of us. I show them because it is an example of how it is much more difficult for people including the police to get away with this sort of behaviour given the state of technology. The first clip has been seen by nearly 300,000 people and the second by nearly 70,000.

It is now possible for ordinary people to carry round the means to take pictures and high quality filmed footage all the time. Indeed these features of often built into modern mobile phones which people almost always have with them. Given this, the Police can have their activities filmed at any time. They can be uploaded in minutes and viewed by thousands or in some cases millions of people within a few hours or days. The Police should not be afraid of this as if they are acting correctly then there is nothing to worry about. After all, the Police are big supporters of CCTV and use precisely that rationale to justify it.

The power of technology in the hands of the masses has been amply demonstrated in the aftermath of the G20 protests. The death of Ian Tomlinson that I blogged about last week and the alleged assault on Nicola Fisher are only now being fully pursued because in each case there is irrefutable evidence filmed by members of the public. This technology is only going to get smaller (hence easier to use covertly), better quality and cheaper as time goes on. Therefore it will be harder and harder for officials to conceal mistakes and wrongdoing.

In many ways I think this could be a very good thing as it will force everybody involved to ensure that their actions are above board. Public support for the Police has been slipping in recent years but if this decline can be arrested and turned around, and I think the inevitability of what I have written about here could be the catalyst for this, then it will be a win win for both public and Police.

UPDATE: And as I predicted, more video footage has come out today. There is no stopping this sort of thing now and every protest will bring more footage like this until the Police change their tactics.

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