'Inappropriate and misconceived' - police lawyers dismiss Liberty concerns, but West Midlands Chief Constable says Birmingham cameras must go

26 October 2010

In a letter received by Liberty yesterday, lawyers for West Midlands police appear to contradict the reported remarks of the Chief Constable.

Last night Chief Constable Sims apologised to the local community in a public meeting for getting ‘such an important issue so wrong’.  He recommended that the cameras should be removed and said:

"We can fight crime and the threat posed by terrorism far more effectively by working hand in hand with local people, rather than alienating them through a technological solution which does not have broad community support.”

However, the letter from the force solicitor to Liberty – which represents a number of residents in the affected areas – states that the Chief Constable does not think human rights have been infringed and dismisses the judicial review as ‘inappropriate and misconceived’.  The letter also says that no decisions will be made about the remaining cameras until a Race Equality Impact Assessment has been completed.

Anna Fairclough, legal officer at Liberty, said:

"Whilst we welcome the reported remarks of the Chief Constable, they appear to be contradicted by a letter from his solicitor describing our clients' judicial review as ‘inappropriate and misconceived’ and failing to accede to their request that the offending cameras come down. Now that two Chief Constables have admitted how "wrong" and destructive Project Champion has been for community relations, the authorities must dismantle its infrastructure or face immediate legal proceedings for breaches of privacy and race equality."

Liberty wrote to the architects of the Project Champion counter-terror scheme last week to inform them that they must agree to dismantle the full surveillance infrastructure or proceedings will be commenced in the High Court. The force must also acknowledge that the decision to install the cameras was unlawful and in breach of residents’ rights under Articles 8 and 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

In a recent external report commissioned by West Midlands Police, the Chief Constable of Thames Valley confirmed that the project had disregarded legal obligations in relation to privacy and discrimination and was falsely sold to the local Muslim community as general crime prevention when it was purely a counter-terror measure. She concluded that community trust and confidence had been undermined as a result, however a statement issued by West Midlands Police in response to the report appeared to indicate that they still intend to use at least some of the “overt” cameras associated with the discredited scheme.

West Midlands Police's controversial CCTV and automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) scheme involved the installation of hundreds of cameras in two predominantly Muslim areas of Birmingham. The anti-terror funding and purpose of the project were kept secret from residents.

Journalists contact: Liberty’s press office on 0207 378 3656 or 0797 3 831 128

NOTES TO EDITORS

1.  The letter from West Midlands police to Liberty can be obtained on request from the Liberty press office.

2.  The Chief Constable’s statement in response to the Thames Valley review is available at: http://www.west-midlands.police.uk/latest-news/press-release.asp?id=1890

3.  The Thames Valley review is available at http://www.west-midlands.police.uk/latest-news/docs/Champion_Review_FINAL_30_09_10.pdf . Key findings from the report include:

  • “There is a real opportunity to learn from Project Champion about the damage that can be done to police legitimacy when the police are seen to be acting in a way which prizes  expediency over legitimacy. Importantly these lessons need to be learned from a counter terrorism project where the need to maintain public support is even more acute.”
  • “As the Birmingham Community Safety Partnership commented in 2008, “there needs to be greater recognition that reducing and preventing crime is not easy and that ill-conceived solutions are unlikely to work no matter what the investment”. This was sound advice which was regrettably ignored.”
  • “During 2007 the threat level in the United Kingdom was critical and there were many covert counter terrorist investigations being carried out by the Security Services and the police. The situation was grave and there were practical difficulties with the surveillance of suspected terrorists during CTU investigations in the Sparkhill and Alum Rock areas. A proposal was made to establish a permanent surveillance capability in the area. While such a security ring exists in the City of London, this proposal was to create something similar in a semi-residential, predominantly Asian area. This thinking should have been challenged from the start and questions should have been asked about its proportionality, legitimacy, authority and necessity; and about the ethical values that underpinned the proposal.”
  • "Moreover the use of CCTV and ANPR is subject to the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act in respect of covert cameras and Codes of Practice in respect of overt cameras (arguably overt cameras that are used for a covert purpose could also fall within RIPA in certain circumstances). Yet I found little evidence of thought being given to compliance with the legal or regulatory framework.”
  • It was very clear from the documentary evidence that Project Champion was initiated as a counter terrorist project but that senior officers saw the opportunity to improve the camera coverage in the area to reduce crime and disorder and improve community safety. The force began to work in partnership with Birmingham City Council and the Safer Birmingham Partnership (SBP) but the project plans were not amended to reflect the new purpose. Consequently the crime reduction benefits that were being marketed would not have been delivered by the project.”
  • While I appreciate that senior officers in West Midlands Police cannot be engaged in the detail of every project, there were opportunities for senior officers and the Police Authority to provide challenging oversight to Project Champion, but these were missed. This was particularly the case following the community meeting on 29 April 2009 which should have been a red flag to senior officers, indicating a need to step back and think through the plans.”
  • Overall the consultation phase was too little too late, and the lack of transparency about the purpose of the project has resulted in significant community anger and loss of trust.”