Police condemned for secret CCTV operation set up to spy on Muslim communities
By Daily Mail Reporter
Last updated at 11:57 AM on 1st October 2010
A police force secretly put large Muslim communities under surveillance using cameras they pretended were for crime prevention, a report has ruled.
West Midlands police told residents the mix of CCTV and number plate recognition devices were to help cut anti-social behaviour and vehicle crime.
But the network in Birmingham was actually being run by its counter-terrorism unit with the consent of the Home Office and MI5.
The £3m scheme, called Project Champion, was intended to monitor Muslims entering and leaving mainly Muslim areas of Sparkbrook and Washwood Heath.
It was halted in June after an outcry from residents and civil rights campaigners and Thames Valley Police was asked to conduct an independent review.
Sara Thornton, Chief Constable of Thames Valley police, yesterday published her damning report.
It concluded police had come up with a 'storyline' to hide the real reason for the cameras and tried to sell it as a local policing strategy.
Officers had promised the cameras would be used for local policing but they were actually controlled by the counter-terror unit, with no facility for local supervision.
Ms Thornton ruled the covert scheme had caused 'significant damage to community relations' with one claim that it had 'set relations back a decade'.
West Midlands Police had no statutory clearance for the use of the cameras and there was 'very little evidence' they had even considered their legal obligations, she said.
'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,' the report concluded.
The scheme was organised by the Safer Birmingham Partnership, an initiative including West Midlands Police, Birmingham City Council and other agencies.
The partnership has acknowledged it should have been more explicit about the role of the city's Counter Terrorism Unit in setting up the network.
And yesterday, the force apologised and admitted it had got the balance between counter-terrorism and excessive intrusion 'so wrong'.
West Midland Police Chief Constable Chris Sims admitted there had been 'serious shortcomings' in the scheme's management and said he was 'deeply sorry'.
'My real regret is that Project Champion has undermined the strong relationships that exist between West Midlands Police and our communities that have been built up over many years,' he said.
He added: 'At the heart of the controversy surrounding Project Champion sits a dilemma faced by police on behalf of wider society, how to find a balance between on the one hand the duty to offer protection from serious harm and on the other the risk of excessive intrusion and the danger of stigmatising a whole community.
'I am convinced that when Project Champion was conceived in 2007, this dilemma was clearly understood. However, somewhere between conception and delivery the critical balance was lost.'
Speaking at West Midlands Police headquarters, he said: 'There were serious shortcomings shown by the West Midlands Police management of this project.
'This allowed the specification to move beyond the point where it was proportionate to the community safety risks and counter terrorism threats that it aimed to address.
'At the same time, the vital consultation that should have accompanied the scheme proved wholly inadequate.'
Corinna Ferguson, legal officer at civil rights group Liberty which is representing a group of Sparkbrook residents affected by the cameras, said: 'It is now clear that the concerns we raised when we threatened legal proceedings were well-founded.
'Project Champion disregarded legal obligations in relation to privacy and discrimination and was falsely sold to the local Muslim community as general crime prevention when it was purely a counter-terror measure.
'This divisive and counter-productive scheme must now end. The cameras must come down.'
The campaign group's director Shami Chakrabarti said the report was '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,' she said.
'With a review of counter-terror policy under way, new ministers must remember the promises of Opposition and challenge the entrenched, unethical and counter-productive advice of hardened securocrats.'
Big Brother Watch, which campaigns against excessive CCTV use and intrusions of privacy, said the project was 'an expensive and oppressive waste of time that should never have gone ahead', as it called for those responsible to be held to account.
Its director, Alex Deane, said: 'Vital civil liberties and any basic concept of privacy were both disregarded by this project. The report rightly concludes that the trust and confidence the public have in the police have been significantly undermined by it.'
He added that the report 'demonstrates that the cameras were totally unnecessary for anti-terror or anti-crime purposes - it was an expensive and oppressive waste of time that should never have gone ahead'.
'But this review was specifically forbidden from blaming anyone or imposing sanctions for what happened,' he said. 'When someone authorises secret, intrusive surveillance like this, both blame and punishment are not only suitable - they're required.'
The cameras have not been switched on and have been covered with plastic bags to provide reassurance to local communities that footage is not being captured.
A Home Office spokesman said: 'This project was agreed under a previous administration.
'Work is already under way on CCTV and ANPR (Automatic Number Plate Recognition) regulation and the Government will be bringing forward proposals on it.'