Sunday, 29 August 2010

'Police chiefs misled Birmingham city council over Muslim CCTV'

The Guardian carry a detailed report here about last week's city council scrutiny inquiry into 'Project Champion'. Below is the presentation made on behalf of the Sparkbrook Respect party councillors to the committee hearing.

"On behalf of all three Respect councillors in Sparkbrook I welcome the opportunity to give evidence to this hearing. We believe the issues surrounding Project Champion, and its successor, are of critical importance to this city. They raise fundamental questions about trust in West Midlands Police, community cohesion, civil liberties, and how we combat the threat of terrorism."

"Respect condemns violent extremism whatever its source. Our record is not only one of organising protests against the atrocity of 7/7 but one of working hard to challenge and isolate those who would exploit political grievances to justify violence.

We are proud of our record of working with local residents and helping bring communities together. Our ward is nationally recognised for scoring highly on important measures such as residents feeling they can influence local decision making, trust in their neighbours and feeling happy where they live. All this despite economic deprivation and a challenging political context.

Respect has been deeply critical of Britain’s foreign policy since 9/11, and we have spoken out about the consequences of these policies at home and abroad. We believe these policies increase the dangers of violent extremism and Islamophobia. We have argued consistently within the community that not only is it right and legitimate to express these concerns, it is an act of citizenship to do so. We have spent a huge amount of time and effort encouraging people to use the democratic process to this end, whether at the ballot box, at council and resident meetings, or on the streets. We have worked hard to encourage people to have faith in the political process.

This is our record, and throughout this time we think that there has been a generally positive working relationship between the community in Sparkbrook and West Midlands Police. We are therefore deeply disappointed and feel betrayed by the behaviour of the police throughout this whole sorry episode. We have three meetings a month with local police, residents and councillors, the aim being to tackle local issues together in an atmosphere of trust and partnership. Not once in all the meetings over the last year was this issue raised by the police.

It is a fact that West Midlands police did not make clear at the outset the exact nature of Project Champion. This was a breach of trust. We were told nothing about its anti-terrorist remit in the meeting in Lloyd House in April 2009. We received misleading answers when we questioned why these specific areas had been chosen, given crime rates were higher in other areas. Furthermore having expressed our opposition, raising concerns about impact on community cohesion and trust in the police should this initiative go ahead, our views were ignored. Yet this is precisely where West Midlands Police find themselves - a place of extreme mistrust - and the reputation of the Council too has been impacted on.

The minutes of the meeting in April 2009 were never circulated to us, and having made clear our reservations, we assumed our opinions regarding our ward had been respected. We were shocked therefore to learn a year later that the cameras had gone up regardless  - both overt ones and covert ones hidden in trees and lamp posts. We are deeply disappointed that West Midlands Police have shown such disregard for elected representatives. By doing so they have sent a message to residents that democratic processes do not matter and this is extremely worrying.

We feel we were deliberately deceived by the police, and this has seriously undermined trust between them, local councillors and the wider community in Sparkbrook. It was for this reason that we felt we had no other alternative but to make a formal complaint about their behaviour to the Independent Police Complaints Commission.

It is bad enough that the behaviour of West Midlands Police has undermined trust with the community. But their behaviour has also undermined community cohesion and the fight against terrorism.

The fact is that these cameras encircle Muslim communities. They are not in place because these are crime ‘hotspots’. They are simply there because a lot of Muslims live there. The fact these cameras are capable of recording every car journey we make, logged and recorded by the security services and kept for years, sends a clear message: An entire community is under suspicion for no other reason than their religious identity.

The spy cameras create the sense of an 'enemy within'. They encourage suspicion between neighbours, of Muslim against non-Muslim.

They create the impression that when it comes to terrorism there is the Muslim community on one side, and everyone else on the other. This is wrong, and disastrous for the fight against terrorism.

Good relations between the police and the Muslim community are vital if the police are to tackle terrorist threats. What the police need is intelligence and know-how from the local community. That depends on trust, and these spy cameras have undone years of work to build that trust.

If we are to rebuild trust, then the police and their supporters must stop the spin and start talking honestly. It does not help that despite packed ward committee meetings, constituency committee meetings as well as several public meetings where residents have overwhelmingly expressed their opposition to the scheme, the police continue to drag out further 'consultation' after the event - in the futile hope it seems that the answer will somehow change or the issue will go away. Again it sends the message to residents that these democratic channels simply do not matter and will discourage people from further engagement. The point is we have democratic mechanisms - we do not need to keep reinventing the wheel - the more these are respected as vehicles of engagement and change the more effective they are, and the more our democracy is strengthened. The opposite is also true.

This attitude of disregard borders on contempt, especially when the choice of the person to oversee the Review is someone who sits on the very Committee involved in the original bid for Project Champion.

It also does not help when supporters of the spy cameras deliberately attempt to blur the differences with CCTV cameras that have been put up with the support of the local community. As ward councillors we regularly support resident groups who want CCTV cameras in order to protect themselves and their property. CCTV cameras are there because the local community believes they will help to tackle general crime and anti-social behaviour. We are not opposed to CCTV cameras. We are opposed to the spy cameras because they turn those of us who are Muslims into suspects simply because we are Muslims.

This attempt to confuse the issue will not help to rebuild trust. We echo the comments of Shami Chakrabarti, Director of human rights organisation Liberty, to the Sparkbrook public meeting in July. Project Champion is a scheme that is “...not just dangerous and divisive, it’s unlawful, intrusive, disproportionate and blatantly discriminatory.”

As ward councillors for Sparkbrook we think these spy cameras are sinister, divisive and damage trust between the community and the Police.

To that end we have acted to make the police and the Council accountable for their actions.  We moved the resolution at the Constituency Committee meeting to write to the Home Secretary Theresa May calling for the removal of the cameras. We raised the issue in the full Council meeting to find out to what extent Cabinet Members sanctioned these cameras. (The Cabinet member for Equalities confirmed he knew nothing about them). We have made formal complaints against the police for misleading us, and have been in contact with solicitors specialising in civil liberties about a Judicial Review.

There is only one way in which trust can be rebuilt and that means taking these cameras down. The resource spent need not be completely wasted as residents have supported the idea the cameras can be deployed in genuine crime hotspots - as long as the allocation and monitoring is completely transparent and democratic. Councillors in Sparkbrook will continue to work with the community to oppose these cameras until they are completely removed.

Finally there are specific questions we would still like answers to:

Having now been promised that secret cameras will be/have been removed what assurance do we have this has happened?

Is Birmingham the only place where such a scheme has been implemented? If not which other places?

How much of the £3 million pounds has been spent? What mechanisms are in place to ensure transparency and local involvement for allocating remaining resource - eg through Neighbourhood Management or Ward Committees?"