An Anti-social Act in Accrington

Photographing Santa Claus, people in fancy dress and a pipe band marching through the town constitutes suspicious and anti-social behaviour according to Lancashire police. The story and video taken by one of the two photographers stopped by police in Accrington a week before Christmas was published by The Guardian last Sunday.  He was arrested and held for eight hours before being released without charge.

The two photographers taking pictures in the town centre were initially approached by a young police community support officer who stated she was questioning them under the Terrorism Act – obviously in direct contradiction of the advice issued to all police by the Home Office.  The two men concerned could almost certainly have avoided a confrontation by telling her what they were doing rather than standing on their rights, but they took the latter course, and the situation escalated in a rather predictable way. The acting sergeant she brought in to back her up perhaps realised that the suggestion of terrorism was ridiculous, and instead came out with the accusation that taking photographs was an anti-social act.

It was a situation that was nothing to do with law and everything to do with saving police face, as the sound-track of the video which Bob Patefield kept running throughout the confrontation until after his arrest I think makes clear (the photographer accompanying him finally did give his name and address and was not arrested.)

The really disturbing part of the story for me is the attitude of the police authority. Rather than admitting that the officers concerned had made a mistake and apologising, Lancashire police, according The Guardian, issued a statement which said ‘”they and members of the public were “concerned about the way in which [Patefield] was using his camera”. It said police felt they had “no choice” but to arrest him because he was refusing to co-operate.’

I don’t actually think it generally makes sense for photographers – or citizens generally – not to cooperate with the police, although I think we do need to stand up for our rights to take photographs. If people – whether or not in uniform – ask me why I’m taking pictures I tell them, and if appropriate shown them some ID or offer them my business card.

Things are a little easier because I have a UK Press Card- for some years through the PPA and now from the NUJ – though it isn’t always a great deal of use and on several occasions police have simply refused to accept it as genuine. I also carry a copy of a letter from one of the libraries I put work in, confirming to “whom it may concern” that I work for them and giving a name and a phone number for any queries. In the past with some projects I’ve found it useful to carry some examples of my work to make it easier to explain to people what I am doing.  Just because the law says I have a right to photograph in public places doesn’t mean that it isn’t sometimes a good idea to explain what I’m doing to anyone who is concerned or even just interested in what I’m doing.

I photographed on the streets for more than 20 years before I had a proper press card, and particularly during the IRA campaign was stopped by police quite a few times while taking pictures. Usually our exchanges were short and polite and both police and I soon happily continued on our ways getting on with our work. Actually I think they were often rather glad to get away as I do tend to go on a bit about photography.

Mr Patefield was almost certainly acting within the law in standing up for his rights, and appears to have been wrongly arrested. He may even be able to take a case against the police and get some compensation for what happened to him – as has happened to some others. I rather hope so.

One Response to “An Anti-social Act in Accrington”

  1. the_fonz says:

    You tell ’em. Also, there’s a film about filming in public and its value, it even takes in the IRA campaign, Policing the Public Gaze,

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