Undercover police in Bristol’s new Costa

22 11 2011

I got stopped and questioned by an undercover policeman this morning for taking photographs of the new Costa on Gloucester Road. The burly officer approached after I had spent about 15 minutes having a coffee and reading a newspaper, as I was unlocking my bike getting ready to cycle to work.

I had noticed him already in the cafe, a thick-set man with a shaven scalp and a headset, talking to one of the barristas in a heavy Bristolian accent.

I drank a well-made flat white, and ate a mince pie (too early?) and a banana. As I gathered my luminous yellow cycling jacket and bicycle helmet ready to leave, the big man left before me, crossing to the other side of the road.

I thanked the two members of staff when leaving, as I always do, with one saying the standard parting shot of hoping to see me again soon, and walked outside, taking two photographs of the cafe from two different angles before unlocking my bike.

When visiting a new cafe, restaurant, bar or pub in Bristol, I always take a photograph. I cannot write about a new opening on these pages without a picture, although I profess my photography skills are not to the same standard as Martin Parr.

I may not be on the staff of Getty Images, but never until this morning had I been stopped by a policeman for taking a photo. For as I unlocked my bicycle, the thick-set man approached me, showed me his police badge, and told me to stop what I was doing and not go anywhere.

He told me that he had seen me inside Costa, seen me leave Costa and then seen me take photographs outside Costa. Blimey, these undercover police officers are as sharp as they are inconspicuous.

He then asked me why I was taking photographs. I told him that I have a blog where I often write about cafes, alongside music, art, theatre, and a few pubs and restauraunts. Anything in Bristol that I think is interesting. He seemed very confused by this.

“So you want to write about Costa?” he asked. I told him that normally I wouldn’t write about Costa but I like to keep abreast of Bristol’s latest openings, especially openings which, according to this informative post by Bristol Traffic, sees “franchise holder, Stuart Montgomery, planning to ride rough-shod over planning law and open a new outlet here, having been refused planning permission to do so”, combined with a 3,000-signatory petition against the cafe opening and a demonstration over the weekend.

After asking what the name of this blog was, the officer got a call on his radio, during which he signalled with his hand for me not to move. The call ended, and I was at liberty to leave, no further questions. A free man.

So what did I do wrong? Why was I stopped and questioned by an undercover officer?

According to The UK Photographers Rights Guide by media law specialist Linda Macpherson, “owners of property do not normally have the right to prevent someone from taking photographs of their property from a public place such as a public highway”, with the exception being for issues of national security, which I doubt covers a new national cafe chain opening in Bishopston.

I wasn’t on private property, I wasn’t on London’s Trafalgar or Parliament Squares where there are special restrictions on taking photographs, I wasn’t harassing anybody, I wasn’t invading privacy, I wasn’t photographing children, I wasn’t obstructing a highway, I wasn’t in a court, I wasn’t taking a photograph of a copyrighted work, and nor was I taking a photograph of a banknote.

While I commend much of the work of Avon & Somerset Constabulary – their high-profile arrest of Westbury-on-Trym public schoolboy and wannabe bomber Isa Ibrahim has this week been made into drama-documentary The Boarding School Bomber on BBC3 – stationing an undercover officer inside a cafe and questioning me for taking photographs of if is absolutely farcical and a wasteful use of precious police time.



18 responses

22 11 2011

Hope the flat white was worth it !

23 11 2011

Maybe he wasn’t undercover? Maybe he was on his way to work too?

23 11 2011

I think the word you’re looking for is ‘jobsworth’.
Unfortunately, although taking pictures in public is perfectly legal, not all police officers seem to know that. Or care.

23 11 2011

Think you’ve pulled.

23 11 2011

Maybe, and this is just a maybe, he was purely just interested in what you where doing, out of nothing more than curiosity (being a nosey Bristolian), from what I can gather from your reporting he didn’t seem too stern although displaying you his badge seemed unnecessary and frankly a little bit silly.

25 11 2011
j j

Why radio it in then?

25 11 2011

“the officer got a call on his radio, during which he signalled with his hand for me not to move. The call ended, and I was at liberty to leave, no further questions. A free man.” – i’m not sure he was radio’ing in.. he got a call, the writer doesn’t go any further than that in his narrative.

23 11 2011
Bob Irving (@bobirving99)

Isn’t a ‘flat white’ a sort of shark?

23 11 2011

Its not as if your pictures of the cafe are any different to a Google streetview image. Maybe the undercover officer wanted to check you didnt have a photo of him.

23 11 2011
My Little Discoveries

Mmmm, interesting…

23 11 2011

There has been a lot of opposition to that branch opening, hasn’t there? And as it’s not too far up the road from Tesco at Stokes Croft, perhaps they are anticipating trouble. Perhaps he thought you were going to tweet the photos or use this website to whip up a bunch of rioters.

24 11 2011

fucking rozzers

25 11 2011
James Beal

It’s not like he gave you an interrogation is it!!

Given the problems that all the oiks caused when Tesco opened, he was probably just a bit wary.

Maybe he was being a bit over the top, but I don’t think you can blame the cops in this area for checking.

8 12 2011
Zero Lubin

I am boycotting all Costas nationally after the actions of this arrogant man.

9 07 2012
Insp Gadget

Just read this, fecking hilarious! Old bill can’t do anything right can they, I mean the pure cheek of asking somebody who is acting a bit suspiciously what they are doing… Who does he think he is, some sort of protector of the public, oh yeah… How much precious Police time did he waste then, given that he probably had to be there anyway. Even if he didn’t then what he wasted a whole minute of precious Police time, he could have solved ten robberies in that time. Get a grip you absolute loser.

7 09 2012

If nothing else a complete and total waste of police time. And borders on police harassment.

If there was a drugs deal going down, then maybe, but otherwise no.

As you quite rightly say, you have a perfectly legitimate right to take pictures in a public place, and that includes pictures of police misbehaviour.

A couple of years ago, The Met issued guidelines, I think drawn up with NUJ, on taking photos which was to have gone to all officers, and they made the document public.

There can therefore be no excuse for any police officer not knowing it is legitimate to take photos, and it was to ensure they know, that the document was drawn up, to prevent incidences like this occurring.

I think it was also linked from ScHEWS and Indymedia UK. I should have grabbed a copy at the time I saw it as a useful document to have.

I always take photos of where I eat. If you wish to write about the place, it shows you have been there, what the place looks like and what you had to eat.


On tripadvisor it might help weed out many of the fake reviews.


If the police wish to deal with illegality, maybe they should start with Costa.

To stop someone and ask questions, police have to have a reason, assuming nothing illegal like stealing a cake, I can see no reason for the questioning.

Assuming the locality has coffee shops of character and excellence, I am baffled why anyone would wish to frequent somewhere like Costa with its soulless corporate character, awful coffee and factory cakes.


7 09 2012
Costa a thoroughly rotten company « Keithpp's Blog

[…] OK to take photos? When one person tried, they were questioned by an out-of-uniform police officer. Undercover police in Bristol’s new Costa […]

8 09 2012

You did not have to answer the questions.

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