Picture: Amateur Photographer’s initial coverage of the row, published in July

Surrey Police were asked to explain their policy on photography after two photographers said they were harassed by off-duty officers amid fears they had captured indecent images of a child – concerns later shown to be unfounded.

Former Guardian photographer Don Morley said an officer told him to remove an image he had taken of a boy through a shop window on Guildford High Street in June (see above).

Morley, who refused to erase the photo, said the off-duty officers told him it was ‘illegal to take pictures with people in them without first asking permission’.

Uniformed police who arrived on the scene shortly afterwards took no action against Morley and his friend, Bernard Lockley, having reviewed their pictures and found them to be lawful.

The force said uniformed officers had been alerted to the scene, separately, via a complaint made by the boy’s grandmother.

At the time, police said it had no written record that off-duty staff had requested an image be erased from Morley’s Fujifilm X10 digital camera, as the officers were not carrying notebooks at the time.

Freedom of Information request

However, responding to a Freedom of Information (FOI) request lodged by Amateur Photographer (AP), Surrey Police confirmed that an officer had asked that an image be removed.

Asked under what circumstances the force justifies an officer’s request to delete lawful images captured in public, Surrey Police responded: ‘The request to delete images in this case was made out of good faith, because of the distress that had been caused.

‘This request was declined; no further action was taken other than general words of advice.’

The police assertion that distress had been caused when an officer asked Morley to delete his picture suggests the off-duty police were responding to the grandmother’s concerns.

But the photographers insisted they were not aware that an independent complaint had been made when the officers ‘demanded’ the image be removed.

Rather, the photographers believe the off-duty police left the scene to persuade the family of the boy to lodge an official complaint.

In an interview with AP in July, Lockley accused the off-duty police of behaving like ‘agent provocateurs’ – triggering the woman’s call to the station.

Police insist that uniformed officers arrived on the scene in direct response to a telephoned complaint from the child’s grandmother, and that the woman’s actions were not influenced by the off-duty staff.

The off-duty officers had been there by chance when they noticed the photographers and did not provoke the woman’s complaint, according to a spokeswoman for the force, speaking in July.  

Morley said 11 minutes elapsed from when he took the picture to the time police originally gave for the complaint having been received, 12.50pm.

This gap, he claimed, suggests the off-duty officers had time to first convince the woman to make the complaint, an allegation the force stoutly refutes.

Police trawl phone records

In its FOI response, the force says subsequent analysis of its phone records shows it actually received the woman’s complaint at ‘12.47pm’ on 27 June. This is eight minutes after Morley estimates he took the controversial photograph, 12.39pm.

At the time, Morley said uniformed police made no mention of a complaint by a member of the public, telling him and Lockley they had been reported by their off-duty colleagues as ‘under suspicion of taking indecent images’.

In its FOI response, Surrey Police confirmed that the off-duty officers did speak face-to-face with uniformed staff.

‘Uniformed officers were briefed as to the actions taken, in order to follow up as deemed necessary in view of the complaint made’.

Police have refused to release a transcript of the woman’s phone call, on grounds of data protection, citing Section 40(2) of the Freedom of Information Act, in its FOI response.