On Saturday 13th November 2010 at around 8pm I was stopped and questioned on Lambeth Bridge by two police officers under Section 43 of the Terrorism Act 2000. The officers said they stopped me as I had taken pictures of a sensitive building and asked if I knew what that building was.
……..“It’s Thames House, the headquarters of either MI5 or MI6, I can’t remember which.”
They asked to see my pictures. I obliged. There were 3 different photos of the back of Thames House. They asked why I took the pictures.
……..“It’s a beautiful building, the brickwork is fantastic” I said. They asked for my name.
We can’t go on together
……..For the next thirty minutes a middle aged policeman with grey hair who would only identifiy himself as D647 and his younger, balder colleague with a goatee, Mr. D512, argued with me to reveal my name.
……..“Why don’t you want to give your name?” said D512.
……..“I haven’t done anything wrong.”
……..“You’ve taken pictures of an intelligence building. You’ve acted suspiciously.”
……..“No I haven’t.”
……..“You’re a smart guy, you read the papers, you know about the terrorist threat in London,” said D512 through his goatee
……..“I have no idea what the reality of the terrorist threat in London is.”
……..“Let me enlighten you, this is a sensitive building and a key target for terrorists.”
……..“Look around us: there’s Millbank Tower, home of the Conservative party; down there by Vauxhall is another spy building; beside us is the home of the Archibishop of Canterbury; there’s the Houses of Parliament, the London Eye and the Savoy Hotel. They’re all high-profile targets. Most of London is a high profile target.”
……..“But you took pictures of only one building, and that’s MI5.”
……..“That’s a coincidence. I went out, helped a friend move house in Pimlico, then came here. I walked past Thames House, thought it was interesting and took some pictures.”
……..“Look at it from our point of view. You’ve only taken pictures of MI5. That’s suspicious”
……..“Well, no. I’ve taken 12 photos of MI5 and 138 photos of Westminster Bridge for a short timelapse film. And all the photos were taken openly, in full view of several passers-by, smokers from adjacent buildings and a Thames House security guard who said nothing in the ten minutes I was meandering up and down the street with my tripod. Then after that I walked around the corner to here and spent the last half hour taking pictures of Westminster Bridge. And when you showed up and asked to see my photos, I showed them without hesitation. I don’t think any of that is suspicious behaviour.”
……..“Terrorists often operate openly when taking reconnaissance photos. I’ve seen footage of terrorists using friends to pose in front of buildings to avert suspicion.”
……..“Is it? Do you think I’m a terrorist?”
……..“If you don’t think I’m a terrorist, why do you want my name?”
……..“If Thames House was blown up tomorrow and I had let you go without checking who you were, then I wouldn’t be doing my job. I’d be letting the city and the country down,” and he was serious too.
……..“But right now Thames House is still standing and I haven’t done anything wrong. I don’t want my name recorded in a database in connection with terrorism.”
……..“Your name won’t be recorded in a database,” smirked D512.
……..“If my name isn’t going to be recorded, then if something did happen at Thames House tomorrow, you’d be in the same situation as if I hadn’t given my name.”
……..“If there was an incident we’d remember you then pass your name on.” D647 finally decided to join in.
……..“MI5 have already got your image from the CCTV and they could publish your photograph and find out who you are almost instantly. Someone, your friends, neighbours or an acquaintance would tell the police,” said D647, implying that giving my name wouldn’t make a difference.
……..“If they already have the means to identify me when they need to, then let’s wait until they need to. I haven’t done anything wrong and I don’t want my name on a record related to suspicions of terrorism.”
And the beat goes on
……..It went on and on. Party boats played cheap disco songs as they passed under us. Pedestrians walked past briskly, barely looking at us. And a 2×2 formation of police motorcycles crossed the bridge, back and forth, several times.
……..“Look, you have pictures of windows, entrances and exits and the structure of a sensitive building and that amounts to suspicion,” said D512.
……..“You can’t really tell the structure from looking at one wall. Besides, anyone walking down the street could get that same information. Google have probably put it up on StreetView.”
……..“Then let me ask you this,” said D647, “if there are pictures already on the internet, then why do you need to take photos?”
For fuck’s sake.
……..“Look, I’m going to take these pictures home and post them on the internet, on my flickr account, that anyone on the internet can see. Is there any legal problem with that?”
……..“No,” said D647.
……..Twenty five minutes in, D512 made an ultimatum: unless I gave my name now, they would arrest me, my camera would be confiscated, and I would be taken to the station where I would be fingerprinted and have my biometric details recorded in the police database. It was a threat aimed directly at my fears. D512 was shivering in his shirt and losing his patience. I didn’t want my camera taken, I didn’t want to waste my time being arrested, and I didn’t want a police record. I decided to give them my name.
……..“We can’t waste anymore of our time here, give us your name or we’ll have to arrest you.”
……..“Will there be a cavity search?”
……..“Of course not,” said D512.
……..“Oh. Ok. Then my name is Peter.”
……..“At last! Thank you! What’s your surname Peter?”
……..While D512 busied himself with bureaucracy, I quizzed D647. I asked what alerted them to me. He explained that MI5 had called their unit, the Diplomatic Protection Group (DPG) and having tracked me to Lambeth Bridge using CCTV, MI5 had let the DPG know my whereabouts. The officers who stopped me got the call when they were in St. John’s Wood and it took them 30 minutes to get to me. I wondered why it took them so long if they thought I was a terrorist.
……..“What do the Diplomatic Protection Group do?”
……..“Protect diplomats, embassies?”
……..“What law are you stopping me under, section 44?”
……..“Nah, Section 43. 44 is for vehicles.”
……..“Short of not taking pictures, what could I have done to avoid being stopped tonight?”
……..“Where are you based?”
……..“The DPG has various bases around London. We’re based at Charing Cross police station in Apex House.”
……..“What make of gun is that?”
……..“Glock 17. Do you know anything about guns?”
……..“Nope. Why have a fleet of police motorcycles in 2×2 formation been going back and forth over the bridge without escorting anyone?”
……..“They help provide rolling roadblocks for VIPs on the move. They may have been going to or returning from an escort.”
……..“Do the police do a lot of escorts?”
……..“That unit does.”
……..D647 let me hear his radio while D512 ran the check. 6 people came back with my date of birth but none of them were me. I was free to go. In the end, I gave them my name, address, how long I’d lived there, my date of birth, and place of birth.
- I think a legitimate case both for and against stopping me could be made in this instance. However, Section 43 of the Terrorism Act 2000 states,
“A constable may stop and search a person whom he reasonably suspects to be a terrorist to discover whether he has in his possession anything which may constitute evidence that he is a terrorist.”
At several points during our conversation, Officer D512 removed his legal right to stop and search me by stating, “I don’t believe for one minute you’re a terrorist.”
- Google StreetView have indeed mapped Thorney Street and therefore the back of Thames House. See it here.
- And finally, see the pictures I took here and here.