Photojournalist in drone arrest row


Published: Wednesday 31st December 2014 by The News Editor

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A freelance photojournalist plans to lodge complaints about police behaviour after he was arrested as he tried to gather aerial images using a drone.

Eddie Mitchell, 49, was attempting to gather footage following a fire in which three people died at a mobile home in Newchapel, Surrey, when he was detained in a field near Gatwick Airport.

He said he had verbal permission from the landowner to fly the drone when three police officers approached him and one took the controller from him.

After handcuffing him, he said all three officers then tried to land the £1,000 drone themselves as it flew around 150ft above the field.

Mr Mitchell, who works for a range of local and national media organisations including the BBC, was held on suspicion of breach of the peace.

The experienced photojournalist is a trained and insured drone pilot who is approved by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to commercially operate Small Unmanned Aircraft (SUA).

Mr Mitchell was freed without charge after more than five hours of being held at a police custody suite near Reigate, he said.

The father of two from Worthing, West Sussex, said he did not need to alert air traffic control as he was operating a drone weighing under 7kg.

He now plans to lodge complaints about the police’s behaviour with the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) and the CAA.

Mr Mitchell, who has worked as a photojournalist for 15 years, said: “It is polite and good airmanship to let police at the scene know what you plan to do before putting a SUA up.

“I was well over 50 metres from any property. I just took off, it was a safe flight and it was within CAA guidelines.

“The drone was up for about five minutes and then the cops decided to snatch the controller from me and take control of the SUA.

“It was an incredibly dangerous thing that they did. They didn’t know the dangers that they were putting myself, themselves and passing air traffic in.

“It could have flown off in any direction. They were passing the controller between themselves and eventually got it down with a thud. I still haven’t got it back.”

The case has emerged amid the growing popularity of drones, which prompted the CAA to recently highlight strict rules recreational users must follow.

Regulations include a ban on flying remote-controlled devices over congested areas or within 50 metres (164ft) of people or buildings without official permission.

Breaches can result in the operator being taken to court and fined up to £5,000, and the CAA prosecuted two cases relating to unmanned aircraft in 2014.

In April a man was fined £800 for flying a drone through restricted airspace over a nuclear submarine base in what was thought to be the first such prosecution anywhere in the world.

The following month a man was fined for flying a quadcopter over a number of rides at Alton Towers in November last year.

Surrey Police said the arrest was made following complaints from local residents and others in the area where a mother and her two young children had died.

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.

“This was a deeply distressing incident which has devastated the community and the impact will be felt for some time. The thoughts of all at Surrey Police are with those affected by the fire.”

A police spokesman said that once the “risk of the breach of the peace” had ended, the man was freed from police custody.

Published: Wednesday 31st December 2014 by The News Editor

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