SECRET POLICE OPERATIONS DESTROY COMMUNITY TRUST

Monday 17 March 2014
Written By: Steve Jolly

Intelligence-led policing makes suspects of us all the reality of living in a surveillance state. 

The presumption in law that everybody is ‘innocent until proven guilty’ has been quietly substituted for the phrase ‘nothing to hide, nothing to fear’ – the slogan of police states the world over.  This in turn has flipped the traditional model of criminal investigation on its head; rather than starting with a crime and then looking for culprits, the police start with a name (or car registration number) and then look for potential crimes.

This ‘intelligence-led’ model of policing can be drawn out further, into the realm of ‘predictive policing’, which speculatively imagines what someone might do in the future, and if possible, prosecutes them for it in advance. This is the only way to ‘prevent’ them from doing it, whatever ‘it’ might be.  Using this logic the police have expanded their role from law enforcement to intelligence agency.  They call it ‘intelligence’.  We should call it spying.

There is no judicial oversight or democratic accountability when it comes to the activities of the secret police.  They do not obtain magistrates’ warrants based on any ‘reasonable grounds for suspicion’ of criminality, nor seek legal authorisation to conduct surveillance on actual bona fide suspects.  Instead they set out to spy on everyone and look for suspects later, by interpreting whatever ‘intelligence’ they gather.  This gives them powers they should not have, supposedly justified by the claim that they are protecting us from all types of crime from anti-social behavior to terrorism.  Now they tell us they are protecting communities ‘at risk of extremism’ – the meaning of which is far from clear.

A common feature of a police state is constant monitoring of the population by a secret police force able to operate outside the law because it works in the shadows, away from public view.  But occasionally when their activities are somehow revealed, secret police operations can spark a major public outcry, as it did in Birmingham in 2010.  West Midlands Police were forced to scrap a major surveillance operation called ‘Project Champion’ when they were caught spying, lying and breaking the law.

The Birmingham Spy Cameras

I first noticed the physical apparatus of this secret police state being quietly installed in residential streets in East Birmingham in April 2010. Cameras were being wired up to metal posts by men I imagined were street lighting contractors working for the Council.  I later learned they had signed the Official Secrets Act and were employed by the Olive Group, a military-linked security contractor more used to providing security to occupying interests inside Afghanistan and Iraq.

Project Champion was a £3.5m network of 108 Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) cameras, 36 CCTV cameras and a further 72 ‘covert’ cameras hidden in secret locations; 216 cameras in total.  They formed an electronic ‘ring of steel’ around Sparkbrook and Washwood Heath, creating virtual border checkpoints to automatically record the number plates of every vehicle that came and went.

It was an ‘intelligence-gathering’ operation devised by the Association of Chief Police Officers’ Terrorism and Allied Matters committee (ACPO TAM) in 2007, the same year that saw the launch of the UK government’s national counterterrorism strategy, CONTEST – of which the highly controversial PREVENT programme is the major strand.

When a few locals began to ask about the hundreds of cameras appearing in their neighborhoods, they were told they were part of a local policing and ‘community safety’ initiative focused mainly on low-level crime, anti-social behavior and untaxed vehicles.

In reality, the West Midlands Counter Terrorism Unit (CTU) was constructing a permanent surveillance infrastructure around Birmingham’s two largest Muslim communities.  The spying did not target suspected ‘terrorists’ for surveillance, or even ‘extremists’ (whatever that means) or indeed Muslims. This surveillance operation would have recorded everyone’s movements, automatically and indiscriminately feeding this information into an intelligence system called ‘Rich Picture.’  Everyone would have been enmeshed in the same net of suspicion, not because they were suspected of a particular crime, but because they come from a particular area.  The movements of entire communities would have been scooped up for analysis by Counter Terrorism Units, MI5 and possibly intelligence agencies in the U.S and elsewhere.

Minutes of a police meeting with local councillors in 2008 revealed how our elected representatives had been deliberately lied to by Chief Constable Sir Paul Scott-Lee who, when challenged, denied the scheme was primarily concerned with an ‘extremism’ agenda.  Instead the police attempted to disguise its true purpose by a process known as ‘policy laundering’ – using a seemingly benign community organisation as a ‘front’ to obscure the origins of the scheme – in this case the Safer Birmingham Partnership.  West Midlands CTU badges were removed from documents and replaced with the Safer Birmingham Partnership logo.  It would be implemented and managed on a strictly ‘need to know’ basis, and the police had determined that the public did not need to know.  An internal police review of the failed project later revealed that the police had conspired to “construct storyline on which to hang the project” in order to deceive the public about the scheme’s true purpose.  Police officers also directly lied to the public in local council meetings.

Defeating Project Champion

Thankfully, a few concerned locals were not deceived, and smelled a rat from the moment the cameras began to appear. I was one of those people, and I am proud to have played a significant part in Project Champion’s downfall.  Blanket covert spying by government on the population is not the mark of a free country; it is unjust, undemocratic and unlawful – the sort of government overreach that we, as citizens, must ‘contest’ and try to ‘prevent’ if we can.

At a regular Moseley community policing meeting in May 2010 I demanded answers, but since none were forthcoming I assured the local Inspector that, “someone from West Midlands Police will have to discuss this with Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight,” and that if the scheme went ahead it would cause a scandal of national significance.

While making enquiries and looking for evidence to confirm my suspicions I came across minutes of a meeting of the West Midlands Police Authority that stated: “Project Champion: £3.5 million funding from ACPO (TAM) confirmed.” ACPO (TAM) provides funding only for projects that are solely for ‘counter terrorism’ purposes and no other reason, therefore police promises of tackling local crime and anti-social behaviour were provably bogus.

Whilst raising awareness online via social media I began working with others locally who had heard about the scheme and were equally incensed by it.  Together we formed a local coalition of councillors, community activists and residents all sounding the alarm.  As awareness began to spread, vocal opposition grew louder and the clamour to have the cameras removed intensified.

Since the police refused to allow anyone to have a copy of their map showing the camera locations, I drove around East Birmingham in a car with two local councillors, spotting the visible camera posts and plotting their positions on a map.  Birmingham City Council’s website published demographic data on the city’s Muslim population, including a map produced from 2001 Census data depicting the two highest density Muslim neighbourhoods: Sparkbrook and Washwood Heath.  The camera mapand the Muslim map were virtually identical.

After writing an article exposing the spycam scheme in a small local magazine I started a local petition, and wrote to all Birmingham MPs, while the facebook page quickly grew to over a thousand supporters (later deleted by Facebook, please clickto add your support).  As the instigator of the facebook campaign I started getting calls from the media and so took on the role of campaign spokesman.

Soon I was talking to The Guardian, whose investigative journalist, Paul Lewis spent over a week investigating and interviewing people for an in-depth expos.  When the Guardian broke the story nationally the campaign shifted up a gear and Birmingham was in the spotlight of national media attention.  By the time the first, long-awaited ‘public engagement’ meeting took place at a Balsall Heath primary school on 8th June 2010 I was able to arrive early and place a photocopy of the Guardian article on every seat in the hall.  Before anybody spoke, everyone in the room was up to speed on what had been going on.  The room filled up with palpable anger and distrust – and equal numbers of Muslims and their non-Muslim neighbours, who had come to demand answers from our police and council officials.

More public meetings followed, the most significant of which was organised not by the police or the council, but by the local community on 4th July 2010.  ‘The Spycam Summit’, as we called it, was a turning point in the campaign. Speakers at the event included councillors, MPs and Peers, prominent human rights and civil liberties groups, myself, CAGE’s Outreach Director Moazzam Begg and some of the roughly 500 local people who packed the hall.  Local, national and international news media broadcast from the event and our own coverage filmed for YouTube serves as a record of that extraordinary meeting to this day.

Assistant Chief Constable Sharon Rowe issued an unprecedented public apology, promising to immediately halt the scheme and remove the 72 covert spy cameras and end any further involvement from the Counter Terrorism Unit.  But it was clear the police did not want to remove the remaining 144 cameras, despite the overwhelming resolution of the local community that the cameras must all come down.

Amid growing opposition and public anger and the full glare of national media spotlight, in July 2010 the police covered up the cameras with blue nylon bags to reassure the community they weren’t being spied on, adding signs to the posts, stating: ‘Cameras Not In Use’ – although the police were still reluctant to take them down. Instead they persisted with a combination of incompetence, deceit and arrogance.

West Midlands Police Authority also held a public ‘Trust and Confidence’ meeting on 30th August 2010 intended as a ‘listening exercise’ to gauge community feeling about the cameras. Police Authority Chairman Derek Webley was left in no doubt when his voice was drowned out by loud collective chants of “TAKE THEM DOWN!”  Anger over the spy cameras had left trust in West Midlands police in tatters.

Despite months of trying, West Midlands Police were unable to contain the crisis, which played out week in, week out, in the media over an 8-month period from April to October 2010.  Questions had been asked in parliament and government ministers were said to be having daily briefings on Project Champion at the Home Office.

Two official reports – oneby the police and anotherby Birmingham City Council –  into the spectacular failure of Project Champion only served to inflame the situation by confirming the community’s worst fears and revealing unknown details that were even worse than we imagined.  In this angry, febrile atmosphere, talk of a large public demonstration was fomenting.  Cllr Salma Yaqoob (Respect, Sparkbrook) prompted rapturous applause at the Spycam Summit for her suggestion that, “if the police don’t remove the surveillance cameras will you join me over the summer to get every one of them down!”  For a while it looked as though it might have come to that.

But civil disobedience and public insurrection was to be our last resort.  We still had our legal card to play: myself and others were taking the Chief Constable to court for a Judicial Review.  Lawyers campaigning on our behalf had a strong legal case against West Midlands Police and were all set to prove that the spy cam scheme was unlawful.

Finally, at an October 2010 meeting of the West Midlands Police Authority, Chief Constable Chris Simms recommended taking the cameras down and scrapping the scheme entirely.  The cameras were unusable: their cover had been blown and they had become so infamous and well-publicised that their original purpose (covert spying) was now impossible and they were therefore useless, for any purpose.  They were described by some journalists as: “the most controversial CCTV cameras in the world,” and were eventually sold off for £1 each or destroyed.  The spy camera catastrophe was said to have set back community relations with the police by 10 years.

All in this together

When white, non-muslim residents failed to support the ‘anti-terror’ spy cameras it challenged prejudices; many were just as opposed to them as their Muslim neighbours, and the sides were re-drawn.  To a significant degree, the two communities unexpectedly joined forces in common cause against the spy cameras and the police.  When white and Asian people stood together in the same room and spoke with one voice, the police knew they were in trouble.  It became the ‘people’ against the ‘authorities’, and the people won.

Habitual demonisation of Muslims through the use of ‘terror fears’ had failed.  People didn’t buy ‘the story on which to hang the project.’  Neither did they feel that the real reason for the spying (‘preventing violent extremism’) was justified.  Instead, people saw past the divisive policies and narratives designed to demonise scapegoats and trick us all into supporting the theft of our freedoms by our own government, using the cloak of ‘national security’.

The police officers responsible for deceiving the public and attempting to implement the unlawful spying operation were never held to account for their role in the spy cam affair.  Instead they were rewarded with either a promotion, a generous pension package or a Queen’s Policing Medal.

Project Champion was an assault not just on the Muslim community but on the civil liberties of everyone.  It presented a grave threat to all our freedoms and, if this extraordinary precedent were set in Birmingham, risked becoming the norm.

‘Freedom Through Surveillance’

In 2012 the government passed the so-called Protection of Freedoms Act, a legislative misnomer that could have been written by George Orwell’s Ministry of Truth, because it does the opposite of what it says on the tin.  In 2011 I appeared before the committee drafting the Bill to give evidence about CCTV, pointing out the many fundamental problems with the Bill.  This latest ‘regulation’ of CCTV now extends its bogus legitimacy to include ANPR cameras (CCTV’s secretive, controversial and arguably unlawful cousin) which comprised the main element of Project Champion.

All over the country ANPR cameras are feeding people’s journey details into local and national ‘intelligence’ databases, but ask about the whereabouts of these ANPR cameras under the Freedom of Information Act and you will be told that is a secret.  The reason: ‘national security’.  It is the catch-all trump card used to cloak the activities of our secret police.  ‘Trust us’ they say, as they go about their clandestine activities, because we know best – but we can’t tell you what we know because it’s a secret.

The Protection of Freedoms Act is really an enabling Act for the surveillance state, as I’ve written previously.  It re-brands the government’s National CCTV Strategy as a harmless-sounding ‘Code of Practice’ and creates a new role of UK Surveillance Camera Commissioner to promote the development, expansion and integration of Britain’s ‘CCTV landscape’.  Through introducing technical standards for surveillance equipment, a ‘digital revolution’ will slowly phase out previous stand-alone (‘closed circuit’) systems in favour of an integrated wireless network of ‘open circuit’ surveillance, effectively replacing CCTV with internet webcams.

Andrew Rennison, the UK’s first ever Surveillance Camera Commissioner oversaw the start of this process before stepping down in February 2014. His successor started on 10th March 2014.  A clue to what particular emphasis his successor will bring to the role might best be gleaned from his background.  The newly appointed UK Surveillance Camera Commissioner is former Assistant Chief Constable Tony Porter, an ‘intelligence specialist’ whose previous roles include Head of Special Branch for Greater Manchester Police, Head of the North West Counter Terrorism Unit and Deputy Senior National Co-ordinator for Counter Terrorism until October 2012.  He was part of a team that designed and implemented the national UK Counter Terrorism infrastructure, therefore would have had full knowledge of the spy camera operation in Birmingham.

Regular readers of the CAGE website may be familiar with Mr Porter, who explained how covert police operations had been ‘successful’ in prosecuting Munir Farooqi, a controversial case that relied on undercover police infiltration and hundreds of hours of covert recordings.  After the verdict in 2011 Mr Porter explained:

            “This was an extremely challenging case, both to investigate and successfully prosecute at court,             because we did not recover any blueprint, attack plan or endgame for these men. However, what             we were able to prove was their ideology.”

 

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