A Rough Guide to Filming Police Stop and Search

If you have a smartphone that includes a good quality photo and video camera then you will be able to film the actions of the police during a stop-and-search, if you choose to do so.

Here are a few basic suggestions that may help you to be better prepared, can ensure that filming the police makes a difference and can ensure that your footage has genuine value as possible evidence.


Why stop and film?

Ordinary people stopping and filming the police using stop-and-search powers can mean that officers behave differently than they would if no-one was watching and recording their actions. This might make the experience for the person who has been stopped far less intimidating or threatening.

The more often the police are filmed stopping people, the more officers may come to expect that they may be filmed in the future. This can influence the way they generally treat people and help to influence whether they routinely use stop & search powers indiscriminately.

If police officers act unlawfully, filming them can help provide evidence if there is a formal complaint or if someone is arrested.


Can I legally film the police?

The Metropolitan Police’s own guidelines (adopted by all police forces in Britain) make clear that “members of the public and the media do not need a permit to film or photograph in public places and police have no power to stop them filming or photographing incidents or police personnel”.

There is no law stopping anyone filming in a public place, so if you are on the streets you can film without asking permission.

However, under Section 58A of the Terrorism Act 2000, police officers can stop you from filming them if they believe that the video will be used for purposes of terrorism. However, police guidelines state that:

“It would ordinarily be unlawful to use section 58A to arrest people photographing police officers in the course of normal policing activities, including protests because there would not normally be grounds for suspecting that the photographs were being taken to provide assistance to a terrorist. An arrest would only be lawful if an arresting officer had a reasonable suspicion that the photographs were being taken in order to provide practical assistance to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism”.

This law does not – or at least should not – apply when you stop to film the police stopping and searching people.


What to remember when filming a stop-and-search

When the police use their stop-and-search, it is already a humiliating experience for the person who has been stopped, so it is worthwhile asking them if it’s OK to film or take photos and assuring them you are just filming the actions of the police.

Sometimes the police will try and stop you filming by saying it ‘breaches the privacy’ of the person being searched. You can get around this simply by asking the person who has been stopped, “I’m here to make sure the police don’t do anything to you they are not supposed to. Is it OK if I film what the police are doing?”

If there are two people with smartphones, it is worthwhile both of you filming. Either both film the officers conducting the stop-and-search or one person can focus on filming the other person with a camera if the police are harassing them.

If police officers try and say you are obstructing them in their duties, simply step back, say “I have no intention of obstructing you” but hold your ground and carry on filming. Remember that legally they have no power to stop you from doing so.

Focus on the actions of the officers. Your priority is to collect evidence. Make sure you record police abuse, threats or orders. If nothing interesting is happening, it might still be important to keep the camera rolling, but keep it focused on the police.

Film the officers’ numbers: police officers are supposed to wear them, usually on their shoulders, and this will help to identify them. As well as filming their numbers, you can also read out their numbers on camera, which can help pin officers down later.

Don’t film the person being stopped & searched unless it is absolutely necessary to show what officers are doing to them. You want to avoid becoming a police evidence-gatherer, even inadvertently. Even if the person being stopped & searched is happy for you to film them, it is best not to film their face or any identifiable clothing.

It may not be in that person’s interest to be identified on YouTube undergoing a stop-and-search. Don’t film or upload anything that the police can use against the person who has been searched, such as swearing.

It’s important to try and film some sort of landmarks, such as a street sign or major building at the end of your video. This will prevent the police from saying that your video is of a different event.

Using your smartphone to record

These are some really basic tips to remember that will help you capture better video footage:

  • Keep calm and focus on recording what you see, rather than getting involved in what you are filming.
  • Make sure you hold your camera sideways rather than upright (in the horizontal ‘landscape’ rather than vertical ‘portrait’ position) so you avoid taking photos or video that looks very narrow and often lacks context (such as what other officers are doing).
  • Keep your phone still! Avoid moving it around, try and keep a clear and steady shot of important events. If you are having problems with this try focusing your eye on something in the top corner of the screen, this should help. Avoid zooming in and out all the time.
  • Try not to speak too much or to add a ‘director’s commentary’ – it will distract from what the officers are saying and you may miss out catching something important or discriminatory.


After you’ve finished filming

Keep the footage safe and back it up as soon as you can.

When the person who has been stopped and searched is hopefully let go by the police, it’s worthwhile asking if they want to swap details so you can pass them the footage if they need it.

If you are uploading examples of violent or oppressive policing to YouTube or Vimeo, then let us know. E-mail info@netpol.org

Please remember the widespread availability of police brutality footage can mobilise some, it has also traumatised many. Maybe we need some ground rules: take a look at this very helpful article on this issue.


What if you are arrested?

Remember, police officers do not want incriminating footage of them if they are acting unlawfully. This can sometimes leave you as a target so remain mindful of this when you are recording, in case they try to arrest you.

If you are arrested, officers can search, seize and retain data from your mobile phone, provided that they have a reasonable belief that it contains evidence of an offence. In some cases, however, police officers will simply take the phone without your permission and look through it in search of any evidence they can use to incriminate you.

If your phone is taken, the police can only retain it for as long as it is necessary to search through it. After this, you can ask for its return.

Green & Black Cross have great resources about arrest: https://greenandblackcross.org/

If you need a lawyer, we have a list of ones that have been recommended by campaigners: https://netpol.org/solicitors/