What’s An Officer To Do? BBC Photographer Arrested While Operating Drone Mid-Flight; Police Land Drone Themselves

Jan 9, 2015

Tiffany Mueller

Tiffany Mueller is a photographer and content strategist based in Hawi, Hawaii. Her work has been shared by top publications like The New York Times, Adobe, and others.

What’s An Officer To Do? BBC Photographer Arrested While Operating Drone Mid-Flight; Police Land Drone Themselves

Jan 9, 2015

Tiffany Mueller

Tiffany Mueller is a photographer and content strategist based in Hawi, Hawaii. Her work has been shared by top publications like The New York Times, Adobe, and others.

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Photo by Vicki Burton
Photo by Vicki Burton

A veteran photojournalist who works for several different news agencies in British Columbia, including the BBC, was arrested for “disturbing the peace” while taking aerial photographs of a burning building. The photographer, Eddie Mitchell, maintains that he was operating the drone legally. Mitchell says not only does he currently hold a Civil Aviation Authority license for drone operation, but he also had permission from the land owner where he was filming.

Before he took the drone out for a spin, Mitchell notified the police in advance of his plans to fly the aircraft. Mitchell says the officer he spoke to told Mitchell to wait 10 minutes while the officer spoke to his sergeant. Mitchell says after the officer failed to return, the photographer took the drone out and began working. Lo and behold, the officer returned asking Mitchell to bring the drone down. In a video clip of the incident posted on ITV, you can see the officer swiftly approaching Mitchell telling him, “This is your final request, please bring your drone down.” Mitchell responds to officer’s request saying he would indeed bring the drown down, but couldn’t maintain the full control needed to be able to land the drone while the officer was coming towards him. Before Mitchell finishes the first sentence of his response, the officer begins taking the controls from Mitchell’s hands, reads him his rights, handcuffs him, and places him under arrest.

“A number of uniformed officers and detectives were sent to the scene of this tragic incident to assist Surrey Fire and Rescue Service with their investigation. While in attendance, concerns about the behaviour of a man were raised to officers from people who believed he was acting in a disrespectful and intrusive manner…” Said Detective Chief Inspector Antony Archibald in a statement to ITV.

Meanwhile, the drone is still in the air…Did I mention this was all happening in a location that fell within the flight zone of nearby Gatwick Airport’s air traffic control zone? Fortunately, the officer somehow managed to bring the drone down, but also managed to break the equipment in the process.

After five hours in a police cell and intervention from a BBC lawyer, Mitchell was released without charges. He received his equipment back the next day, but says the damages to the drone, plus loss of wages set him back £5,000, which he plans to recover through a lawsuit that will be filed claiming false imprisonment and damages incurred to the drone by the arresting officers.

Mitchell told The Press Gazette, “I don’t rush things and have a good relationship with officers across the board in Sussex. That’s been a hard-earned relationship. Here I’ve been penalised for being honest and forthcoming with police and telling them what I was going to do. I think the way that police deal with photographers needs to be looked at…”

And, in case you were wondering, there is official guidance from the Association of Chief Police Officers (APCO) for all forces which states: “There are no powers prohibiting the taking of photographs, film or digital images in a public place. Therefore members of the public and press should not be prevented from doing so. We need to cooperate with the media and amateur photographers. They play a vital role as their images help us identify criminals.” You can read the entire document, here.

While there are a few really interesting things happening in this story, what I find to be the most curious is the situation in general and how much potential it has for really pushing lawmakers to establish and/or clarify the policy and procedures surrounding the usage of drones. To recap: a man who underwent several months of mandated training and licensing to learn to fly a drone safely was arrested while operating a drone mid-flight (very close to an airport, over a burning building where there were many firemen, officers, and residents on the ground), the controls of the drone are then taken over by an officer who has no reported history of ever flying a drone or having gone through training to do so. Is it just me or does the potential for further disaster here seem entirely plausible?

That’s where it get’s interesting for me. Regardless of whether Mr. Mitchell was in the right or wrong, there are bound to be more instances like this in the future and, without question, there will be cases in which the photographer is very obviously breaking a law, operating a drone in unsafe territory, or a similar situation in which the police will actually need to take over the controls. Luckily, the squabble between the law and Mitchell didn’t cause any physical damage outside of the drone, but my question is who would have been at fault if the drone had crashed into something or someone after the officers had taken the controls away from the photographer? Then what? Who, then, is actually responsible for landing the drone safely?

This is precisely why, along with a lawsuit, Mitchell is also pressing ACPO to construct and issue new regulations regarding such situations. Mitchell notes that there needs to be legislation which would prevent an officer from arresting a drone operator while the drone was still in flight. Obviously, there’s a lot of gray area that needs to be brought to light, but, hopefully, Mitchell’s case will be cause for a more expedited process. To that end, it may also be worth noting that, in the aforementioned letter from APCO, it also states: “Unnecessarily restricting photography, whether for the casual tourist or professional is unacceptable and it undermines public confidence in the police service.” That statement at least suggests the police force is concerned about its relationship with the public and the way they are viewed by residents. Perhaps, they will be able to see the potential danger and resulting embarrassment for the police force, had the officer’s not been able to land the drone safely. One can hope, right?

[ via ITV | Press Gazette |Photo by Vicki Burton ]

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Tiffany Mueller

Tiffany Mueller

Tiffany Mueller is a photographer and content strategist based in Hawi, Hawaii. Her work has been shared by top publications like The New York Times, Adobe, and others.

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24 responses to “What’s An Officer To Do? BBC Photographer Arrested While Operating Drone Mid-Flight; Police Land Drone Themselves”

  1. Paul Menard Avatar
    Paul Menard

    The officer should give the pilot abit of time to land the drone safely, I guess even a controlled handover isn’t ideal with a pro drone, never mind during a kerfuffle…

    1. Michael Blitch Avatar
      Michael Blitch

      The cop should not be involved. It is not their authority to stop an otherwise lawful flight. If they are not sure then wait until they are. The term ‘the ignorance of the law is no excuse’ applies to them as well.

  2. Jason Wright Avatar
    Jason Wright

    The officer would CLEARLY be responsible for anything that happened during or after a forcible take-over of controls. By taking the controls he is LITERALLY taking control AND liability/responsibility of the drone.
    What this officer did was dangerous and stupid.

  3. Chris Curtis Avatar
    Chris Curtis

    What you have missed out is that the fire tragically caused the death of several people including children. Fighting the fire and recovering the bodies made the scene particularly sensitive. Flying a drone around to film in these circumstances is at least insensitive, distracts emergency personnel and as the Police have said risks a breach of the peace (because upset relatives and neighbours might well have taken inappropriate physical action against the photographer because of his intrusion into their tragedy) the Police are entitled to take reasonable action to prevent a breach of the peace.
    The right to take film or photos in public is not absolute. It has to be balanced against others’ right to respect and privacy. Seems to me the Police on the scene were placed in a “no win” situation by the photographer’s determination to get and sell footage. He told them what he wanted to do. They said it was a bad idea but would check. He carried on anyway and was then stopped. Seems reasonable.

    1. JOhn C Avatar
      JOhn C

      There is no right to privacy and no obligation for sensitivity. He is a phtojournalist so hopefully he did show respect, but this is no different than a film crew from Chanel 9999 showing up. The article didn’t make it sound as if he was in the way or anything like that (unless that was left out). THere seemed to be no justification for arresting him on the scene, it sounded as if he was cooperative and compliant. And people wonder why the police are losing the support of parts of the population, i’m not talking about the rioting and violence, just the lost support of some common citizens.

      1. juanfrito Avatar
        juanfrito

        This new thing about drones poses a different problem that is not only about privacy. If you use a zoom lens you are somehow managing to capture details otherwise impossible to shoot, but your are not “invading” (physically) the scene. Later, the photographer, the editor, and their legal advisor should consider what to publish, taking into consideration then, but not before, rights, moral and self-regulation codes, and sensitivities.

        Nevertheless, a photographer “on foot”, even a professional one (press, authorized, etc.) can’t enter a crime scene, usually cordoned, no matter if they have permission from the land owner. I’m not saying I agree with one opinion or another, just playing devil’s advocate: the problem here seems to be whether the space above the cordoned scene (or immediate surroundings) should be free of drones or not.

        If he was told specifically to wait a response perhaps he should have waited. Or he could have insisted. If I were a police officer at a crime or accident scene, near a big airport, in absence of any regulation or known policy (and perhaps there are, but I mean something well known to the public) I would have asked him to land the drone too.

        Of course the officer went too far by taking the controls from the photographer, but I think most drones have a way to easily make them ‘return to home’, so the part of him telling that he was not able to do it immediately sounds a bit ‘pushing the limits’ to me.

        1. Tiffany Mueller Avatar
          Tiffany Mueller

          You make a lot of good points here…

        2. Michael Blitch Avatar
          Michael Blitch

          ot was no where near the airport. It was at least 8km away and nowhere near any flight path. Ignorant people are assuming that the ‘airspace’ means it was near the airport. That airspace can extend dozens of miles of an ATC depending on how the air traffic system is carved out. You can be 20-50km from an airport and be in their ‘airspace’.

          1. juanfrito Avatar
            juanfrito

            Thanks for adding some information. I’m well aware of how “airspace” works. In a particular place different restrictions or rules apply for different altitudes, times, types of aircraft, VFR or IFR. And in case of certain events exceptional restrictions might apply (and I would say a fire could be one of them).

            I wrote ‘near a big airport’ after reading ‘this was all happening in a location that fell within the flight zone of nearby Gatwick Airport’s air traffic control zone’. That suggests -of course I could be wrong, but it’s a fair assumption- that it happened within controlled airspace. The Gatwick Control Zone and Control Area are both Class D airspace (http://www.bostonvirtualatc.com/charts/EGKK/ENR/EG_ENR_6_1_4_1_en_2012-06-28.pdf). It’s not about flight paths; it’s a fairly big zone. In that airspace
            you need explicit permission from ATC, unless your drone (plus camera) is under 7Kg, but regardless the weight you can’t fly over or within 150 metres of any congested area, within 50 metres of any vessel, vehicle or structure which is not under the control of the person in charge of the aircraft, or within 50 metres of any person.

            I don’t think the officer was privy to this details, perhaps he was trying to contact his superior or someone with more knowledge, and the photographer could have waited for the officer to clear him –it was one of the points of my first message, not his rights- (if you don’t like that word, because you think you are free to fly the drone no matter what and don’t think you need explicit permission, think of it as a confirmation that if someone concerned about your drone asked the police -and they did-, they would know what to tell them to ‘soothe the mood’.

            Also, and this is just how I would react in a situation like this -thus a personal opinion-, if I were told that several people had expressed their concern about what I was doing, even if I knew it had every right, I would have stopped doing it. For me it’s not a matter of absolute rights, but how do you take everything into consideration and, sometimes, compromise. But again, this is just how I am wired and, needless to say, I wasn’t there to assess this particular situation; take it as an opinion, not a judgement.

          2. Michael Blitch Avatar
            Michael Blitch

            The ignorance of the law is no excuse. The pilot should not have to wait to look up some laws. If he is operating legally, then the cop should have nothing to do with him. If the cop doesn’t know, then he should not guess or otherwise act unless a reasonably prudent and aware person would think the pilot was being reckless. The cop doesn’t get to pull over everyone he wishes at random just to check to see if they have a license, so this situation is the same.

  4. Arthur_P_Dent Avatar
    Arthur_P_Dent

    There is no privacy issue because the fire can be seen by people standing in public areas. Are you suggesting the police should have rounded up everyone who was using a camera there? Photography is not a crime.

  5. Andrew Avatar
    Andrew

    The right to take film and photos is public *is* absolute. There’s *no* restriction that can be imposed on that. There’s absolutely no way a police can prevent a news chopper with high-zoom lens to fly around and shoot everything and broadcast it live.

    Police has no authority to order a journalist what to do. Him informing police about his intent was nothing more than a goodwill gesture, he had no obligation to do that. People present has no right to ask photographer to behave a certain way and/or stop filming and he has no obligations to follow their requests.

    On the other hand, police should and is required to protect photographer from “inappropriate physical actions” against him — that’s their responsibility, yes. Preventing them — perhaps. But prevention shouldn’t be by jailing the photographer. It’s like saying “I worry about your safety so I lock you up in a jail”. That sounds like Russia.

  6. Richard Avatar
    Richard

    Why is the use of a Drone any different from News Reporters / Photographers taking shots from a Helicopter, this seems to be a perfectly acceptable practice.

    1. Michael Blitch Avatar
      Michael Blitch

      Police have probably been long annoyed by others watching them. They cannot do anything against the helicopters but now they can get physical access to a pilot so to harass them.

  7. Michael Blitch Avatar
    Michael Blitch

    That doesn’t matter at all. When have you seen pictures of bodies be published to cause this concern of yours. If you haven’t when you are jaguar creating your own assumption and applying them to someone. News agencies capture all kinds of photos or video and in the editing process they decide what is to be published.
    The police are to enforce laws, not their own preferences. Their ignorance of the law is no excuse.

  8. Peter Johnson Avatar
    Peter Johnson

    The drone was 1/4 of a mile away form the fire scene – this is the picture, the incident happened at the other end, he also works for the fire service as a drone pilot!!!!

  • Patrick Day Avatar
    Patrick Day

    I’m not a drone pilot, but i thought there was a fail-safe in the system that cause the drones to return to home/base when signal is lost. If that’s so, wouldn’t the prudent thing to do (not that i condone what the police did in this situation) is power down the controller?

    1. Dave Brassington Avatar
      Dave Brassington

      If the model of Drone was in fact a DJI as shown in the picture, the standard “Fail safe” in the case of loss of signal is to return to the point of take-off in a safe manner. Being a ‘professional’ pilot the first the first action would be to ensure the Drone was correctly oriented and capable of this.

      1. Tiffany Mueller Avatar
        Tiffany Mueller

        I can’t confirm he was using a DJI, but here’s a screen grab of the journalist and his drone…Hope that helps

        1. Jesse Lee Avatar
          Jesse Lee

          Looks like a DJI-made six-prop. Most semi-pro grade and above drones have some sort of come-home-and-land device.

    2. Tiffany Mueller Avatar
      Tiffany Mueller

      True, but is that assuming the officer knows fail safe exists? In some instances, these interactions with drones could be the officers first and only experience with them. If they do not know fail safe exists, it seems to me they wouldn’t know how to initiate it, yeah?

    3. Jesse Lee Avatar
      Jesse Lee

      Usually the fail-safe only kicks in when the drone is out of range. This drone was clearly still within that operational range, so the safety mechanism won’t kick in.

      1. Michael Blitch Avatar
        Michael Blitch

        No, not just ‘out of range’ but any loss of signal. It can even be triggered by a switch toggle on the controller

  • Michael Blitch Avatar
    Michael Blitch

    The right to capture the images is absolute. The right and ability to publish depends on circumstance.

    For one the UAV was not directly over the scene. That is a bad a gale at which to capture any photograph, so logically it would be off the the side. For second, it doesn’t matter what the scene was about. So what that some people died? Do you think the bodies would be published? If show cite your reasoning, such as where have you seen those similar images published so that you expect that to happen in this case.
    Third it is not up to the police to act because something is annoying. They are to enforce laws, not make up their own.