I spoke too soon. Less than a week after I said that I’d never been stopped for taking photographs in a public space, I was stopped by the police for taking photographs in a public space.
It was rather strange. I am not used to being stopped by the police. I am not used to dealing with the police at all – I think the last time I even spoke to a policeman was ten years ago.
I was visiting London on Monday morning. A bright day, showery, I decided to walk from my hotel in Old Street to the British Museum, through Clerkenwell, stopping to look at and photograph buildings as I went.
I had stopped at St John’s Square, looking north; I noticed a building with a bright red Z on its facade, which was pleasantly offset against the dark blue sky and contrasted with a buddleia growing out of the roof. I took a picture of it – this one, actually:
A policeman came up and asked me what I was doing, so I told him I was on my way to the British Museum, taking photographs of the buildings that caught my eye on the way. He asked me why I wanted to do that – not that I think he didn’t believe me, but because he couldn’t understand anyone innocently taking pictures of buildings. I pointed out the large red Z and the plant growing near it, and how I liked the contrast of the ornamental letter and the dark sky behind. He asked if I was a professional photographer, although I don’t know if that would have made any difference – do professionals have different rights to amateur photographers? I noticed his partner, a younger woman, standing some way off. (I wonder if she was taking my picture?)
He asked me for some identification; I thought for a moment about saying that I didn’t believe I needed to carry ID with me, but decided better of it and showed him my driving licence. (I wondered whether it helped that it shows my title as “Dr”.) I asked if he would mind if I took his picture, and he said that he would rather I didn’t, and I didn’t push that one, either.
I explained that I thought it wasn’t against the law to take photographs in public, and he said it wasn’t, but that they had seen me acting suspiciously and they had to investigate. “Suspicious” can only mean looking at a building across the road and taking a photograph in the street: I wasn’t trying to hide my camera, I wasn’t acting furtively; I wasn’t even wearing dark glasses.
I might have been a terrorist, he said, or planning a crime. I might: it is possible. But so might anyone. And if I were, how would seeing my driving licence help? What if it my name had been Mohammed or Hussein?
The officer was very polite and courteous – charming even – and I thought he handled me pretty well. He may just have been a nice guy, or perhaps the Met has some excellent training programmes on how to deal with the public. When I said I was considering writing to my MP, he said he hoped I would, because his bosses would then know that he was doing his job properly. He asked for my name and address (had he been a call centre, I would have got angry at this point, because of course he had seen my name and address on my driving licence; he didn’t notice that the address I gave was different from the address on my driving licence, since I haven’t updated my licence since I moved more than a year ago – I believe this might actually be an offence!). He told me he had to file a report, and as he started to fill out a printed form he explained about “stop and search”. He told me that I might even have witnessed a crime, and if I had, they now had my details. (This seemed like a long shot to me.)
The forms gives the “grounds for search or reason for stop” as “seen taking pictures of buildings in EC1 Clerkenwell by St John’s Square”. I am glad I was only stopped, and not searched.
It was all very strange. All told, it took two officers about fifteen minutes each, for no real benefits – even they must have thought it was a waste of time. I can’t believe that any terrorists or other criminals would be so blatantly “casing the joint” – but if they were, how would anyone know they had criminal intent?
Looking at the information on the form, it states “Police must use their powers of stop and search fairly and without unlawful discrimination”, so perhaps I was the middle aged white male needed to balance their quotas.
Coincidentally, Boing Boing featured a video made as someone was subject to stop and search; there is clearly a lot of this going on. Austin Mitchell MP has submitted an early day motion on the topic; funnily enough, he has my whole hearted support.
ETA: looking at Google, I found out that the building is a posh hotel – Zetters. Maybe someone famous was staying there?