Police use anti-terrorism laws to search photographer taking pictures of church

By Calvin Palmer

A leading architectural photographer in the UK was stopped by police in central London yesterday while photographing one of Sir Christopher Wren’s churches, as part of a personal project.

Grant Smith, 53, has 25 years experience documenting buildings by Richard Rogers and Norman Foster and worked on the construction of The Gherkin and the Millennium Bridge, was stopped by a squad of seven officers who pulled up in three cars and a riot van. His belongings were searched under Section 44 of the Terrorism Act.

“Three of them descended on me and said they were here because of reports of an aggressive male,” Smith said. “One of them even admired my badge which said ‘I am a photographer not a terrorist’.

“But they searched my bag for terrorist-related paraphernalia and demanded to know who I was and what I was doing. I refused, saying that I didn’t have to tell them. They said if I didn’t they would take me off and physically search me.”

Earlier Smith had been approached by a security guard from a nearby Bank of America office and asked for his name and to explain what he was doing. Smith refused.

Smith was perfectly within his rights. The security guard was grossly exceeding his powers. The guard called the police, telling them Smith was photographing staff.

Smith said he was photographing buildings, not staff at the bank. The pictures were part of a personal project to photograph “the remaining steeple of Wren’s Christ Church, Newgate”.

The incident comes days after a memo was sent to all police forces in England and Wales warning officers to stop using terror laws to harass innocent photographers.

In a circular to fellow chief constables, Andy Trotter, of British Transport police, said: “Officers and community support officers are reminded that we should not be stopping and searching people for taking photos. Unnecessarily restricting photography, whether from the casual tourist or professional, is unacceptable.”

In the past 18 months there have been 94 complaints to the Independent Police Complaints Commission about the misuse of Section 44 powers. There is a growing outcry among working photographers who are finding their daily routines interrupted by police searches when working in high-profile areas that may be considered terrorist targets.

City of London Police said its response to Smith had been proportionate.

 “When questioned by officers, the man declined to give an explanation and he was therefore informed that in light of the concerns of security staff and in the absence of an explanation, he would be searched under the Terrorism Act,” said a spokesman. “After the man’s bag was searched, he explained he was a freelance photographer taking photos of buildings. Once this explanation was received there was no further action.”

[Based on reports by The Guardian, The Independent and Amateur Photographer.]

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