A secret police operation to place thousands of Muslims living in Birmingham under permanent surveillance was implemented with virtually no consultation, oversight or regard for the law, a report found today.
Project Champion was abandoned in June after an investigation by the Guardian revealed police had misled residents into believing that hundreds of counter-terrorism cameras installed in streets around Sparkbrook and Washwood Heath were to be used to combat vehicle crime and antisocial behaviour.
In fact, the £3m project was being run from the West Midlands police counter-terrorism unit with the consent of security officials at the Home Office and MI5.
The network of CCTV and automatic number plate reading (ANPR) cameras, which were weeks away from being switched on, were intended to monitor people entering and leaving the predominantly Muslim suburbs.
Revealing the findings of her damning report into the project, Sara Thornton, chief constable of Thames Valley police, revealed how:
• Police devised a “storyline” that concealed the true purpose of the cameras. Counter-terrorism insignia was removed from paperwork as part of a deliberate strategy to “market” the surveillance operation as a local policing scheme to improve community safety.
• Top police officers failed to ask questions about the operation’s “proportionality, legitimacy, authority, necessity, and the ethical values inherent in the proposed course of action”. The report documented 11 instances when “oversight” mechanisms offered limited or no scrutiny.
• Police assurances that security cameras would be used for local policing were highly misleading. Although ANPR data was to be shared on regional and national databases, the network was controlled by the counter-terrorism unit. There was “no local facility to view the cameras” and “nobody in place to monitor them”.
• Attempts by police to conceal the true purpose of the project caused “significant damage to community relations” in the West Midlands. One community leader was quoted as saying the project had “set relations back a decade”.
• Officers failed to comply with national CCTV regulations or conduct proper consultation. They did not obtain statutory clearance for the use of covert cameras and, Thornton said, there was “very little evidence” that police had even considered their legal obligations.
Sir Christopher Rose, the chief surveillance commissioner, confirmed in a statement that 29 covert cameras had been removed. Police had planned a total of 218 cameras in the area, 72 of which would be covert.
The West Midlands chief constable, Chris Simms, said in a statement that he fully accepted Thornton’s findings. “I am sorry that we got such an important issue so wrong and that it has had such a negative impact on our communities.”
His force has declined repeated requests for an interview with a senior officer since June. Today the force again declined to provide a senior officer to answer the Guardian’s questions.
There have been no resignations or disciplinary action over Project Champion. The West Midlands police authority, the force watchdog, is considering complaints from councillors who say they were misled by senior police officers.
Assistant chief constable Anil Patani, who had overall responsibility for Project Champion, is not known to have made any public statement about the fiasco. The project was removed from his command in July.
Thornton said the scheme was funded out of a counter-terrorism fund administered by the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) as a direct response to the perceived concentration of terrorist threats in 2007. In their proposal police said they intended to place a surveillance “net” around two Birmingham neighbourhoods identified as containing a high proportion of terror suspects.
The bid for the funding was submitted in January 2008 and the following month the project received the backing of the police authority, which Thornton said failed to ask the obvious question: “Is this the right thing to do?”
In January 2009 the project was well underway and senior officers turned to public relations. Minutes from meetings chaired by Patani reveal officers decided to “formulate a narrative” that concentrated on tackling crime.
Seeking to find “a storyline on which to hang the project”, it was decided to remove the counter-terrorism “badge” from documentation. The logos were replaced with a new brand – the Safer Birmingham Parternship (SBP) – which was given nominal responsibility for the cameras.
Senior officers were aware of the dangers. “We are not going to install 150 plus cameras without questions being asked,” the officers noted.