A Note on the Gatwick Drone Arrests

The Independent quotes Sussex Police Detective Chief Superintendent Jason Tingley, following the arrest and release without charge of a couple, Paul Gait and Elaine Kirk, in relation to the drone incidents at Gatwick Airport:

The detective said the arrests made on Friday night were the result of a tip-off from a member of the public.

“I’m completely satisfied the arrests were lawful, bearing in mind the burden of proof and likely suspicion at the time of arrest,” he said.

“Obviously we had to be sure prior to release, in terms of that investigation, they were no longer suspects.”

Mr Tingley added: “I won’t apologise, but what I will say is we really do appreciate their co-operation and we have put a lot of effort and resources into supporting them when they were released from questioning.”

The “tip-off”, assuming it was unembellished, would have consisted of the mundane fact that the couple lived near Gatwick and Gait owned a drone. These are very thin grounds on which to suspect someone, and when news of the arrest broke the first reports already included an alibi from Gait’s boss which put him in the clear.

A further quote from Tingley was published on the Sussex Police website:

“Both people have fully co-operated with our enquiries and I am satisfied that they are no longer suspects in the drone incidents at Gatwick.

“It is important to remember that when people are arrested in an effort to make further enquiries it does not mean that they are guilty of an offence and Sussex Police would not seek to make their identity public…”

Some observations.

First, it is always welcome when a police force reiterates the point that an arrest does not indicate guilt, even though this should be obvious. Sussex Police does not have a good record here, though – in 2015, the force announced that having spoken with a woman who had accused the late Bishop of Chichester George Bell of child sex abuse, Bell would have been arrested, interviewed, and bailed, and the matter referred to the Crown Prosecution Service. The only impediment was that Bell had died in 1958. After some pushing by the journalist Peter Hitchens, the police eventually clarified that “there was no intention to release a police statement about the alleged criminality of Bishop Bell”. However, routine police procedure had been presented in sensational terms, with the obvious implication of just such criminality. I wrote more about this here.

Second, it should be noted that Tingley justifies detaining Gait and Kirk on the grounds that the arrests were “lawful”. There is tendency for the police to refer to its powers when asked to justify operational decisions, but this is a dodge. The arrests may well have been “lawful”, but that does not mean that they were proportionate or well-grounded. In this instance, at the time of the arrests the police were under great pressure to show that they were making progress, and it is reasonable to suspect that this had an improper influence on decision-making.

Third, police may not have publicised the two names, but they reached the media nonetheless. Perhaps they were leaked, although the spectacle of the arrest and police search of Gait and Kirk’s home may have caught the attention of journalists. The person who provided the “tip-off” may have been responsible, in which case we must wonder if police acted in response to a malicious allegation.

Sensational front-page headlines followed, with the Mail on Sunday asking “Are These the Morons Who Ruined Christmas?” This goes far beyond simply echoing a question which at that time was being asked by the police, and is obviously accusatory and derisory. Roy Greenslade has more on this here, including the obvious parallels with the infamous press monstering of Christopher Jefferies. He suggests that it is “doubtful that the Mail on Sunday, and maybe other titles too, will escape unscathed.”

4 Responses

  1. It is unlikely that the arrests were lawful but few people challenge this.
    The law changed a long time ago so that an arrest has to be necessary in other words in a case like this the suspect(s) would be asked to come in for a voluntary interview under caution and be able to have a solicitor present.
    A section 8 PACE warrant could have been obtained so that premises could have been searched prior in any event to look for relevant evidence including the drone so there would be no loss of evidence.
    The senior officer’s comments regarding lawfulness of the arrest is another area often misunderstood, the decision to make an arrest is entirely that of the arresting officer who may have to justify this later. Many cases have failed where an officer has said that he was instructed or tasked to arrest someone. A senior officer cannot instruct another officer to make an arrest. I would also be looking at why it was necessary to arrest the drone operators wife/partner? I hope these people have instructed a good solicitor to make a civil claim.

  2. […] his similar blog article, Richard Bartholomew suggests that the use of a single “source” as the reasoning for […]

  3. Crumbs! The Twitter comments remind me of Stewart Lee’s take on responses to the news of the death of Osama Bin Laden.

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