In the midst of the current global pandemic, there are those who think governments across the world may use the crisis as an excuse to drastically – and permanently – increase surveillance of their citizens under the guise of ‘health monitoring’. This might be through the use of drones, facial recognition software, or mandatory ‘tracking apps’ installed on people’s phones. Invoking memories of the increase in State surveillance, and State intrusion into individual’s privacy in the aftermath of the September 11th terrorist attacks of 2001,Ron Deibert of the University of Toronto, one of the world’s leading experts on mobile phone surveillance, described in an interview with the Guardian (14/4/20) how increased surveillance procedures introduced in response to the present crisis could turn out to be “9/11 on steroids”.
This is the classic fear epitomised by George Orwell with the slogan “Big Brother is Watching You” in his novel of a dystopian future, 1984.
I have to say though, that my practical experience in fighting for clients who have been the victims of injustice at the hands of Police officers is that more prevalent video surveillance in society is our friend, not our foe, especially when you consider that a lot of that video surveillance power – the majority of it in fact – is not in the hands of the state, but the citizen – i.e all of us, with our mobile phones.
Here are just a few examples of clients I have represented, whose cases were immeasurably strengthened by the existence of mobile phone or other video footage –
- ‘Mohammed’ whose mobile phone recording of his conversation with a West Yorkshire Police officer proved that the officer’s statement that he had informed Mohammed that he was being detained for a Drugs search was untrue; rather the Officer, saying nothing about a drugs search, had instead badgered Mohammed for his name and address whilst alleging Mohammed was “committing anti- social behaviour” – the nature of any such behaviour being completely unspecified (Mohammed was sitting quietly in a car at the time). In the same case, I also had the benefit of footage from CCTV cameras from a nearby building which demonstrated that the Officer’s assertions that Mohammed’s companion had run at him and pushed him, and that Mohammed had then ‘broken away from him’ whilst the Officer was trying to search/ detain him were also untrue. In fact, it was clear from the CCTV footage that it was the Officer who had walked away from Mohammed, after ‘confiscating’ his mobile phone ! Subsequent criminal proceedings against Mohammed for allegedly assaulting the Officer were dropped once Mohammed’s mobile phone footage was produced, and likewise his civil claim for compensation was settled before reaching Trial. I strongly feel that West Yorkshire Police would have fought both sets of proceedings ‘tooth and nail’ to Trial were it not for the existence of the video evidence giving the lie to their Officer’s account.
- ‘Mark’ whose mobile phone footage of his interaction with a British Transport Police officer in a London railway station demonstrated incontrovertibly that the Officer had detained Mark against his will without, on the Officer’s own admission, having the necessary grounds to arrest him, or any other legitimate power to detain him temporarily (e.g for a search).
- ‘John’ who was subjected to physical violence at the hands of two Merseyside Police officers who claimed he tried to escape from a drugs search – in fact his phone footage demonstrates that after answering the Officer’s questions he was allowed to go his way, and the Officers only laid hands on him after they heard him calling one of them an ‘idiot’ (a fairly tame remark I’m sure you’ll agree). The Officers also subsequently alleged that John had been swearing and shouting, but this was also disproved by the mobile phone footage.
- ‘Linda’ whose claim against Lincolnshire Police I have recently settled for close to £10,000 and who was the victim of Police brutality when an Officer, objecting to the fact that she had been filming his arrest of her partner on her phone (for a minor traffic violation) came after her as she walked away making a telephone call to her partner’s mother, grabbed her from behind, seized her phone and wrestled it out of her grasp, causing her to be knocked against a car in the process (all of this witnessed by Linda’s 12 year old daughter). The Officer had absolutely no basis to take Linda’s phone, but his actions in doing so are far from uncommon in my experience – Officers dislike being filmed and not having control of the footage, despite the fact they are almost all now equipped with Body Cameras themselves and have no power to require members of the public to stop filming them. It is very common for Officers to claim they are confiscating phones as “evidence” when they have no power to do so.
My long experience of cases such as these meant that I was, like many of us I’m sure, saddened but not shocked to see the video footage which has been widely circulated in the media over the last 24 hours of a Lancashire Police officer apparently threatening to “make something up” to justify an Accrington man’s arrest (read the news report with video here). The Officer can clearly be heard to say, when the young man protests that he’s done nothing wrong, “I’ll make something up, Public Order? squaring up to a Police Officer? – shall I do that, who are they going to believe, me or you?” The Officer then repeats those last words in a furious shout “WHO ARE THEY GOING TO BELIEVE, ME OR YOU?”
Fortunately, the answer to the Officer’s question is provided, loud and clear, by the circulation of this video.
As I noted above, almost all Officers on patrol are now equipped with their own Body Worn Cameras – but the Officer decides when he wants to record using the camera, and when he doesn’t.
I say that it is quite right and proper that the great power of the Police – so dangerous when abused – is held to account when appropriate by the testimony of the type of video evidence that we all now have ‘in our pockets’. This is especially the case when you think of all those years gone by, before the advent of the ‘smartphone’, when the Police Officers in the four cases I have described above, and also in the Accrington incident, would have stood a good chance of getting away ‘scot- free’ with the lies they told and/or their unlawful acts. Society is more healthy where the rights of the ‘the man on the street’ are reinforced by this type of evidence; reminding people that you shouldn’t always take Police Officers at their word, sad though it is to say it. The rights of citizens and the power of the Police are thereby more balanced and fair.
In conclusion therefore; I’m not so worried about ‘Big Brother’ looking over our shoulder. Rather I’m happy that the Police know that all the ‘little brothers and sisters’ out there are, potentially, watching them!