A late Thursday afternoon just before my shift was due to finish, I was hiding from the rain under a roof outside a large shopping mall in our borough. 'Hey', I figured. 'The tax payers get the reassurance of a friendly-looking police officer in a highly visible location, and I get the reassurance that despite being out on foot patrol on a soggy day, I get to stay dry. It's a win-win, right?'
A mother with her little son walked by.
"See, Dale, he is here to take you to prison because you didn't eat your vegetables yesterday.", she said, and winked at me.
I squatted down, bringing myself down to the boy's level.
"What do you want to be when you grow up, then?" I asked.
"Police!" the boy said, half-hiding behind his mother's leg.
"Well, what foods is it you don't like?" I asked, to no reply. "Is it peas?"
The boy nodded.
"What about carrots?"
He nodded again.
"How about... Sprouts?"
The boy scrunched his face up - clearly not a big fan of sprouts.
"Well, you see," I said, "In order to be a police, you have to be strong. Do you know what makes you strong?"
"Peas?" the boy asked.
"Correct. I can tell you're a smart boy - eat your peas, and you can be a police. You even get to carry handcuffs around with you!" I said, fished my handcuffs out of their pocket, and showed them to the boy. He inched forward, and touched the cold metal.
"Cold!" he said.
"Yes," I replied. "That is, in fact, the main reason why people don't want to get arrested. Handcuffs are very cold on your wrists."
The boy nodded sagely, turned to his mother, and mumbled something about being OK with eating peas now.
The mother gave me a smile and a wave, as she led the boy into the shopping mall.
I love little interactions like that, and sometimes, I'm a little bit jealous of the Safer Neighbourhoods officers - sure their jobs may be a lot less action-packed than mine, but I reckon there's definitely something to be said for preventative and community policing. I once went on a foot-patrol with one of my sergeants through one of the boroughs where he was a safer neighbourhood officer for half a decade - it was impressive; Even though he hadn't been back to his patch for month, he still knew the names of hundreds of people, and some of the type of kids that normally wouldn't be seen dead taking to a police officer happily came up to him to enquire about his family, his dog, and him. I do wonder if perhaps that is a more useful way to get to know the local population a lot better; spend more time with them, and invest your own time in being seen, gaining trust, and helping people.
My little daydream of the wonders of local policing was cut short by some sort of an altercation behind me. A mall security guard was wrestling a young woman out of the mall, and pushed her out the doors.
As I was taking stock of the situation, the woman spotted me, and walked over.
"Did you see that?" she asked.
"I saw you be removed from the mall, but nothing before that."
"He threw me out for taking photos!"
"Were you taking photos?" I asked. As I asked, I saw the Nikon strap over her shoulder.
The security guard walked over as well, presumably to see what she was saying about him.
"Yes I was taking photos; it's a brand new shopping mall, and the architecture is quite interesting. I'm a lecturer in architecture, and wanted to show off some of the details to my class as an example of how you can hide load-bearing structures in ornamental ways."
"And then what happened?"
"The security guard came up to me, said I couldn't take photos, and that I had to leave."
"Did you leave?"
"No, I still had shopping to do."
"Did you stop taking photos?"
"Yes, I did."
"So why were you removed from the mall?"
"He said I had to give him my memory card. I refused. Then he took the camera off me, and deleted it."
"Wait, what did he delete?"
"Everything! He formatted the memory card."
I looked over at the security guard.
"Is this correct, sir?"
"Yeah. We have clear signs saying you can't take photos in here. It's private property, you know." he said, and pointed at a sign by the entrance that, indeed, had a 'no photography allowed' icon on it.
I turned back to the photographer.
"Did you have any other photos on your memory card? Other than the ones of the mall?"
"Yeah, I'm not from London, so I've been walking around taking photos of lots of things."
"She wasn't allowed to take photos in here", the security guard said.
"We have ourselves a bit of a problem," I said.
"Damn right we do," said the security guard. "People who are unable to read signs."
"Actually," I replied, "You are in a lot more trouble than she is."
"What?" he said.
"What legal right did you have to remove those photos from this woman's camera?"
"She didn't have the right to take those photos!"
"I don't dispute that, sir, but you didn't answer my question. Under what law did you have the right to remove those photographs?"
"I... She didn't have the right to take the photos in the first place. Of course I can delete them."
"Right, two things on that: Assuming that you did have the right to delete the photos taken in the mall, what right do you have to delete all this woman's photos? Even the ones that were taken outside the mall?"
"The second thing is that the correct answer is that you do not have the legal power to delete anything from anybody's camera. The fact that she took photos where she wasn't supposed to is her wrong, but it's not a criminal offence; it's a civil matter between the shopping mall and her, given that the shopping mall has decided to make a rule that says that she can't take photos, and she decided to break that rule."
"Now you listen to me, this is fucking bullshit..."
"Language," I interrupted him, "But the real problem is that you decided to take matters in your own hands, and delete her files. If you want the files deleted, you need to get a court order: You can't just delete files that don't belong to you. That's an offence under the Computer Misuse Act of 1990."
"But... How the hell am I meant to do my job?"
"Well, not by committing criminal damage for starters," said the woman.
"Anyway, I'm going to have to take some of both of your details", I said.
"Wait, are you arresting me?" the security guard said.
"It hasn't come to that yet," I said.
"What do you mean 'yet'?" he said. "I need to call my supervisor over, this is absolute bullshit. Just because this little bitch doesn't have eyes in her fucking head..."
"Woah, woah, woah," I interrupted him again. "There's no need to call this lady any names. Besides, you're both in the wrong here, the only difference is that you've committed an actual criminal offence in deleting those photos."
"You know what..." the woman said, as she opened up her camera, took the memory card out, and replaced it with a different memory card. "Don't worry about it."
"What?" I said.
"It doesn't matter that this clown decided to delete my photos, I can easily restore them when I get home. My husband is a photographer, he has shown me how easy it is to get photos off a formatted card."
"So..." I asked.
"So, if it's all the same to you, I'd rather just get on my way, and this gentleman can walk away without being arrested."
"Er..." I said. Sure, I was convinced that the security guard had committed a crime, but I have to admit that right there and then, I couldn't remember neither the wording of criminal damage nor of the Computer Misuse Act well enough to be completely sure exactly which laws he had broken. And, if the photographer was happy to restore the images herself, it wouldn't be any less of a crime, but it would certainly make my life a lot easier.
"Right, stop for a moment" I said.
"Mr Rogers", I read off his name tag. "Are you happy to let this women on her way?"
He grunted something that sounded more or less like a 'sure'.
"Miss..." I said.
"Mrs," she replied. "Call me Lisa."
"Lisa, are you happy for me to not go any further with the deleted photos?"
"Sure, no problem."
"Right, can you please apologise to each other?"
After an exchange of half-hearted apologies, Lisa left the mall, and the security guy went back inside. And I decided to spend the rest of my shift tracking down the security guard's supervisor
Matt Delito is a pseudonym for a policeman working for the Metropolitan Police. All Notes from the Frontline are not entirely “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” due to the sensitive nature of the business, but are all based on actual events. These days, he’s on Facebook and Twitter as well.
Matt has a book based on his Notes from the Front Line column out now - you can get it from Amazon, in paperback or on Kindle.
If you missed his previous columns on Giz UK, check them out over here.