A photojournalist arrested for breach of the peace after flying his drone near the scene of a fatal fire is planning to sue Surrey Police for wrongful arrest and false imprisonment.
Eddie Mitchell is also planning to seek around £5,000 for lost earnings and damage to the drone. And he is urging the Association of Chief Police Officers to issue new guidance after the officers arrested him whilst the drone was airborne, rather than allowing him to land it safely.
The Brighton-based photographer, a freelance who works on retainer for the BBC, attended a caravan site in Newchapel, Surrey, on 30 December where a mother and two children had died.
He has a Civil Aviation Authority licence to fly drones and has been doing so professionally for a year.
After finding a safe site near the caravan park to take off from, and obtaining the permission of the land owner, Mitchell said he told the police what he intended to do.
He said the officer he spoke to asked him to wait for ten minutes whilst he asked his sergeant. When the officer failed to return, Mitchell proceeded to fly his 1.2kg drone in order to get a general view picture of the caravan site (whilst staying some distance away from the scene of the actual fire).
The picture above shows the scene of the fire in the far distance. Mitchell said he did not fly his drone any closer to the scene of the tragedy than that.
Whilst the drone was airborne three police officers arrested Mitchell, placing him in handcuffs, and used the remote control to attempt to land the drone themselves – eventually managing to do so (as this video broadcast by ITV Meridian shows).
Mitchell was held in a police cell for some five hours for breach of the peace and eventually freed after the intervention of a BBC lawyer.
Mitchell did not get his £1,000 drone back until the following day, meaning he lost two days of work. By that stage he said that the photos he took of the caravan site were worthless. He said that the drone was also damaged by police rendering it inoperable.
He said: “I’ve always been patient and good with the police and that’s why they are normally good with me.
“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. We are earning an honest living and if police officers have concerns about us it is up to an editor what he does and doesn’t use.”
Existing guidance to all forces from the Association of Chief Police Officers 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.”
Mitchell said the ACPO guidance needs to be updated to take into account aerial drones and to make clear that officers should not arrest a drone pilot whilst a device is airborne.
He said that in his case if he had been flying a larger device his arrest could have prompted a dangerous crash. He also noted that he was close to the airspace of Gatwick airport and that, to his knowledge, none of the officers involved in attempting to land the drone had a flying licence.
Surrey Police said in a statement Mitchell was arrested following complaints from residents of the caravan site.
Detective Chief Inspector Antony Archibald, said: “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.
“At the time of the arrest, the main focus for officers and fire crew at the scene was to conclude the initial forensic investigation and to allow the dignified removal of the bodies of those who had sadly died.”