Chief Constable Slams Birmingham Surveillance Scheme

30 September 2010

In an external report commissioned by West Midlands Police, the Chief Constable of Thames Valley has confirmed Liberty’s worst fears about the intrusive, discriminatory and unlawful surveillance scheme known as “Project Champion".

West Midlands Police's controversial CCTV and 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.

On Friday 2 July 2010 Liberty Legal Officer Corinna Ferguson sent a letter on behalf of a number of local residents threatening judicial review action against the force if the cameras were not removed. A review of the scheme was announced shortly afterwards.

Chief Constable Sara Thornton’s criticisms of the operation include:

  • the operation disregarded legal obligations in relation to privacy and discrimination;
  • whilst the scheme was “marketed” to the local Muslim community on grounds of general crime prevention, it was always devised as a counter-terror measure and was not capable of supporting general police purposes;
  • there was no regard to the principle of proportionality and other ethical values. Community trust and confidence was undermined as a result.

Corinna Ferguson, legal officer at Liberty said:

“One of the most senior police officers in the country has confirmed that this Home Office- West Midlands surveillance project saw “expediency” trumping “legitimacy”. The only way to re-build vital community trust is by taking down these unlawful cameras without delay.”

Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty said:

“Chief Constable Thornton’s report is a devastating critique of “Project Champion” that will confirm the community’s worst fears about blanket, discriminatory and unlawful surveillance. Whilst we welcome police attempts to learn from mistakes, there remain serious concerns about the Office for Security and Counter-terrorism that funded this scheme.”

“With a review of Counter-terror policy underway, new Ministers must remember the promises of opposition and challenge the entrenched, unethical and counter-productive advice of hardened securocrats.”

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The review is available at . 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.”