Monday, August 30, 2010

Police Authority "Trust and Confidence" Meeting Backfires

I was baffled and bemused by the police authority meeting I attended on 4th August 2010. I'm not sure what the police authority were hoping to achieve, other than ticking the box to say they had "listened" to the views of local people.  They will no doubt use it as proof of their commitment to "engagement" with local communities about policing in the west midlands. Having ticked that box they will presumably carry on with whatever undemocratic and unaccountable processes they intend to pursue, since they don't appear to have even thought about the views and concerns of local people in the past and still show no signs of doing so even now. 

The stated purpose of the West Midlands Police Authority's public meeting was to hear people's views on 'Trust and Confidence in Policing' and how this might be improved. It was prompted by the public outcry over the attempted implementation of an unlawful mass surveillance scheme that targets two predominantly Muslim neighbourhoods of the city. 

Here is the police authority press release about that meeting on 4th August:

Bishop Derek Webley, Chair of the West Midlands Police Authority said he wanted to hear about how trust and confidence had been damaged by the spy camera fiasco but qualified that by saying the meeting was not about whether the cameras should stay or go.

“This is not a consultation but it is a chance to find out how about how the trust and confidence in the police have been affected. We could have done things differently. I’m not afraid to say that.”

Considering the purpose of the exercise was to "listen" to people's comments, Webley simply did far too much talking and not enough listening. Members of the public were frustrated with Webley's long-winded monologues and lack of contrition. He came across as a man who likes the sound of his own voice. He could happily talk all night yet say nothing of any meaningful consequence. Webley is a waffler and not the right person to conduct a "listening" exercise. He didn't even appear to have admit that mistakes had been made and at one point even disputed that an apology had been given over the fiasco. He showed a distinct lack of humility and was unapologetic throughout, repeatedly defending the actions of both the police and the police authority. In short, he got people's backs up and prompted people to spell things out to him in a very clear and direct manner. 

"You don't deserve our trust and confidence!" shouted one woman. "You're turning the country into a police state," shouted another man even louder. "You've got more cameras than Communist China!" he yelled, before walking out in disgust. Almost every audience member who spoke called emphatically for the cameras to be taken down. The message was loud and clear, but fearing this was falling on deaf ears and the meeting was a pointless exercise, the audience began chanting: "TAKE THEM DOWN!" 

Webley even questioned the meaning of one of the founding principles of the police force, set out by Robert Peel when he established the police force in 1829. "Policiing by consent does not mean 'with permission'", he explained, implying that the scheme could go ahead even if it is rejected and vehemently opposed by the two large communities it affects. What arrogance!

The meeting was reported on the BBC national TV news two days later:

The meeting was also filmed in full by 'We Are Change Birmingham' and has been made available to watch on YouTube in 5 parts:

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

Part 4:

Part 5:

The Birmingham Mail also reported on how tempers flared at meeting:

There is also a report with the damning headline, "Birmingham CCTV system leaves police trust in tatters" on the BBC's national news website, here:

The news reports prompted debate on the issue on BBC Radio WM and Radio 5 Live, who's Nicky Campbell held a phone-in discussion on CCTV camera surveillance. The programme is no longer available on the BBC'c iPlayer application, but comment and analysis of the points raised can be found on the website of national campaign group No CCTV, courtesy of the group's founder, Charles Farrier:

Corinna Ferguson, a lawyer from human rights and civil liberties advocacy group, Liberty, was on BBC Breakfast TV all morning, explaining why the camera scheme is ill-conceived, unjust, unlawful and potentially counter productive. Sadly this was not made available on iPlayer, so there is no link to post. There is however, an article on the Guardian website, where Corinna explains the issue. "Why is Birmingham's CCTV scheme 'unlawful'?

In my view, the meeting did more harm than good. It did nothing to help restore the trust and confidence in the police among the communities targeted. It merely heightened the sense that our police are arrogant and unaccountable and consider themselves above the law. Far from performing the function of local police 'watchdog' the police authority is nothing more than a fig leaf to cover the feudal powers of the Chief Constable, whose bidding they appear to serve unquestioningly. Shame on you!

This tawdry episode shows quite clearly that our police authorities have failed in their remit; they do not hold the police to account nor do they exercise any form of scrutiny or oversight. The police authority is a 'toothless tiger': nothing more than a tame pet of the Chief Constable. Instead of holding our police chiefs to account, the police authority loyally and willingly do their bidding.  If ever there was an argument for elected police commissioners, this is it. Come in, West Midlands Police Authority, your time is up!

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Great article by Kevin Meagher on political blog Left Foot Forward (29th June 2010):

"Theresa May is right to take on ACPO and reform the police"

"One of the immutable laws of British politics is that any hint at radical reform to British policing disappears without trace, entering a sort of Bermuda Triangle of public service reform, never to be seen again.

Back in 1993 Sir Patrick Sheehy recommended radical (and quite justified) restructuring to police ranks to cut costs and improve decision-making. The report was shelved. More recently, Charles Clarke’s more modest effort to reduce the number of police forces from 43 to 12, ending the ludicrous, duplicating, county constabulary system, met with a similar fate.
So current incumbent, Theresa May, deserves some credit for standing her ground this morning when she told police chiefs at the Association of Chief Police Officers conference in Manchester a few home truths about the need for them to modernise in the face of “big” budget cuts.

This followed leaked warnings from Sir Hugh Orde, President of the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), that police numbers were not “sustainable”  in the face of home office budget cuts.

In her speech the home secretary announced a long overdue review of police terms and conditions, saying:
It cannot be right, for example, that police overtime has become institutionalised. We may not win popularity contests for asking these difficult questions, but it is time for them to be asked.”
She also pledged a review into procurement, asking:
“Does it really make sense to buy in police cars, uniforms and IT systems in 43 different ways?”
Of course, Ms May is approaching police reform inadvertently – from the position of a dutiful minister with responsibility for spreading the pain of public spending cuts. But necessity is the mother of invention and the net result of her direction of travel should be a leaner, more modern and accountable police service – a result progressives should applaud.

And the Tories are on the right lines with elected police commissioners too. The sheer opacity of current police force governance makes a mockery of public accountability. Unelected police authorities made up of appointed councillors and lay people – who no-one elected and who pay minimal heed to the needs and wishes of their local communities – are little more than a fig leaf to preserve the feudal powers of chief constables.

At the very least, an elected commissioner provides a rallying point for local communities to focus on if their particular local priorities are not met. As the home secretary argued:
“It means a directly-elected individual at force level, setting the force budget, agreeing the local strategic plan, playing a role in wider questions of community safety and appointing – and if necessary removing – the local chief constable.”
But the police argue that stronger democratic control would skew operational matters, in a similar way to how some health professional argue targets in the NHS alter clinical priorities. But let’s be clear: policing, quite literally, is not brain surgery. The police’s job is, as the home secretary reminded them this morning, is to cut crime, “nothing more, and nothing less”.

But ACPO is a formidable opponent and adept at the political black arts that force politicians into headlong retreat. And little wonder with the high opinion it has of itself. Its Statement of Purpose claims that it “leads and coordinates the direction and development of the police service in England, Wales and Northern Ireland”.

Now it’s fair enough for any professional body to want to be a collective voice for its profession, or to share best practice, but leading the “direction and development" of the police is surely a matter for Ministers and Parliament?

In fact, nowhere in its aims and objectives does it even talk about ‘best practice’. The truth is that ACPO is a producer interest group, pure and simple. And a powerful one too. It works to create a consensus for political inaction; fighting for greater autonomy for its members and vetoing any changes it doesn’t like.

So in a bid to ameliorate her hard message on budgets and reform, the home secretary foolishly caved-in on other issues, promising, for example, to scrap the 10-point policing pledge. She would have done better to stand her ground and demand ever greater customer focus from the police. They still face too few of the public guarantees now common to other public services, as the BBC’s home editor, Mark Easton, has pointed out.

But Ms May was more tactically adept in inviting ACPO to produce a “national plan for the way the service does business”. Either the police top brass comes up with its own cuts and reforms, or they have them imposed by the long arm of HM Treasury. It is perhaps ironic that it takes the threat of severe public spending cuts to kick start reforms that should have been made years ago.

And there’s a lot to do. Instead of pioneering moves to share back office services, redress the balance between police and civilian staff, increase the use of IT, or becoming more customer focused (have you ever tried emailing the police?) they are literally years behind the rest of the public sector.

A long, ignominious line of home office ministers have opted for a quiet life and done ACPO’s bidding. But for today at least, Ms May deserves two cheers for not being one of them. Her challenge, however, as always in government, is to turn rhetoric into action."

Link to the original article by Kevin Meagher:

Muslims 'Angry And Betrayed' Over Spycams

The Muslim Public Affairs Committee (MPAC) UK, the UK’s leading Muslim Civil Liberties group, didn’t mince their words in this report on 23rd July 2010:

“After apologies and retractions for misleading, deceiving and lying to the Muslims of Birmingham, it seems the West midlands Police Authority (WMPA), have reverted to type, once again trying to deceive the Muslim community, by fixing an internal investigation.
On June 4th, in a Public Meeting , ACC Sharon Rowe of West Midlands Police, declared that she would personally takeover and lead on ‘Project Champion’. An investigation would be started into how the clearly anti-Muslim, anti libertarian project could come about the way it did, funded by money from the Home Office fund (ACPO-TAM) Terrorism and Allied Matters.
A fact the Police tried to hide from the relevant council officials, councillors and the general public, so much so that they decided to proceed with the project, without consultation of the community that the CCTV cameras would encircle and intern.
However, in a twist of Machiavellian proportions, the person chosen to investigate the whole debacle, is none other than Chief Constable of Thames Valley Police, Sara Thornton, who just happens to be Vice Chair of the Association of Chief Police Officers Terrorism and Allied Matters Committee (ACPO – TAM).
Fresh controversy and doubt has been thrown over the sincerity of the West Midlands Police, ACC Rowe’s apology, as well as her claim of a fair and independent investigation. Many in the community feel even angrier and even more betrayed. A resident of Sparkbrook said,
How dare they treat us like this, first they try to intern us and once they’re caught they cry their crocodile tears, apologise and just when we have breathed a sigh of relief, that our families and children won’t be spied on by the counter terrorism unit, they stab us in the back, by fixing the investigation. Never have I had lower regard and more mistrust of the police as I do now. Having been born and raised in this country, I am having to wake up to the reality that I am nothing but an alien, to be stigmatised, spied upon and tracked like some common criminal. I am disgusted at the betrayal of the Police and will never trust them, or give them any information in the future.”
MPACUK says enough is enough, how much longer can we as community be treated in such a manner? How much longer can we be cast aside by the Police? How much longer will we fail to engage and participate in the political process?
MPACUK asks all Muslims and non Muslims to lobby their mosques, councillors and MP’s to contact WMPA. To tell them of their disgust at the way an entire population of Muslims has been treated and the contempt and disregard, in which the so called ‘independent’ investigation is to take place.
MPACUK, applauds Green Lane Mosque for the progressive stance it has taken, regarding these cameras and inciting the believers to come out and take part in protests and demonstrations. MPACUK asks all other mosques and Imams to follow the lead of Green Lane and turn the moribund and dormant over 60′s clubs, knows as Masjids, into the heart of the campaign, to tear down these instruments of oppression and Islamophobia.”

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Spycam Row Prompts Public Meeting Over "Loss Of Trust" in West Midlands Police

Invitation To Police Authority Meeting About 'Trust And Confidence' In Local Policing


Chair of West Midlands Police Authority, Derek Webley, is inviting the public to a meeting at the Bordesley Centre, Stratford Road, Camp Hill, B11 4LJ, on Wednesday 4th August 2010, from 7pm to 9pm.

Derek Webley said,
“Effective policing is dependent on communities having trust and confidence in the police. The Authority, knowing the concerns which have arisen in some parts of the West Midlands from the proposed use of CCTV and ANPR cameras in connection with Project Champion, wants to listen to members of the public. The Authority wants to know how trust and confidence can be restored where this has been adversely affected.”

Derek went on,
“Project Champion is the subject of intense scrutiny. There is a review by Chief Constable Sara Thornton of Thames Valley Police, another review by the City Council’s Local Services and Community Safety Overview and Scrutiny Committee chaired by Councillor James Hutchings and there will also be an extensive consultation on the future of Project Champion. The Authority supports all this work, but the Authority also has its own role in listening to the public. This meeting is not about whether or not the Project Champion cameras should be switched on. This meeting is about understanding how trust and confidence has been adversely affected, and how it can be rebuilt by communities and the police working together.”

Click here for more information about West Midlands Police Authority.

Judicial Review 'Unnecessary", Say Police

West Midlands Police have rejected calls from civil liberties group, Liberty, for a high court judicial review of the legal issues the scheme presents, saying the move would not be necessary or appropriate now that that the public are to be consulted over the the future of the spycam scheme. Any such action, says the force legal officer, would cause delay and hamper attempts to reach a local community resolution to the deadlock.

The police have pledged to remove the 72 “covert” cameras that have been secretly installed in undisclosed locations amongst Birmingham’s two biggest Muslim communities for ‘anti-terror’ surveillance purposes. West Midlands police have also promised to conduct the Equalities Impact Assessment that it was required to carry out by law, but neglected to do before implementing the scheme.

More on this on The Stirrer website.

Authorities Under Fire Over Spycam Fiasco

The row over controversial surveillance cameras in parts of Birmingham reached new heights last month with the authorities coming under fire and increasing pressure to re-think the whole operation. Outraged local residents and campaigners have turned the tables on the watchers and it is now Birmingham City Council and West Midlands Police who are under intense scrutiny over their involvement in the plan. The cameras have been covered up pending a full public consultation about their future. The boldly named Project Champion has become a PR disaster.

Last month hundreds of local people packed into the Bordesley Centre in Sparkbrook for a memorable public meeting, dubbed The Spycam Summit. In an extraordinary scene, Assistant Chief Constable Sharon Rowe, who has been drafted in to sort out the mess, apologised:
"Mistakes have been made. Mistakes have been made by West Midlands Police and I am sorry. I am truly sorry.” Ms Rowe pledged, “There will no longer be any involvement from the Counter Terrorism Unit” and “there will be no covert cameras in your neighbourhoods."

Keynote speaker at the event, Liberty’s Shami Chakrabarti, described the scheme as “Project Bonkers” and summed up with these words:
“This scheme isn’t just dangerous and divisive; it’s unlawful as well.” […] “You have rumbled something here in Birmingham… you have an opportunity here in Birmingham to set an example to the rest of Britain.”

Birmingham City Council has announced a full review by its Overview and Scrutiny Committee into Project Champion. There will also be an independent review into the role of West Midlands Police and their handling of the project. Chief Constable Sara Thornton of Thames Valley Police will carry out the review. Media commentators have slammed the move, questioning how “independent” the review will be, considering that Ms Thornton is the former Chair (and current Vice Chair) of the same ‘Terrorism and Allied Matters’ group that designed and funded the project in the first place.

The network of 216 cameras was designed to monitor Birmingham’s Muslim population with blanket surveillance. The network of surveillance equipment includes 144 Automatic Number Plate (ANPR) cameras, 12 of which are “dual-purpose” (combining ANPR and CCTV), 38 standard CCTV cameras, and 72 “covert” cameras hidden at secret locations.

Such intense police surveillance in residential areas is unique and believed to be the first operation of its kind in mainland Britain. The only precedent for the use of Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) cameras to monitor entire communities in Britain was in Northern Ireland during “the troubles” to monitor the IRA and other political enemies. The Birmingham “spycam” scheme has similar political overtones: it was paid for with counter-terrorism funds, targets a specific (Muslim) community and appears to have little to do with tackling local crime.

It's all happening over on facebook

There will be more content added here in the next few days. In the meantime, for all the latest on this story please go to the facebook group, where the updates, comments, news, videos and photos are coming thick and fast. You don’t need a facebook account to view it. It’s open access: no user ID necessary, no password, just click on the link and you’re in.

There is also great reporting on The Stirrer website, so do look there too.

See you again in a few days : )