I’m conquered in a car seat, and I’m lookin’ straight at you…

This is what most police stakeouts actually look like. Probably.

The stakeout is a big part of any decent cop film. Two lonely cops sitting in their car for hours at a time, eating junk food and watching nothing happen at a shady address across the street. Is it this simple though in real life?

The short answer is yes. And no.

Whilst a decent stakeout will almost certainly involve doughnuts and boredom, it will also involve getting the proper legal authorisation to be ‘stakeouting’ in the first place.

In England the capability for public bodies to carry out surveillance is covered by the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, also known by time pressed, acronym fond police officers as ‘RIPA’. This Act tells public organisations such as the police, councils and even, when he’s in the UK, James Bond, what they can and can’t do when it comes to covert investigations and the collection of private information.

The Act is important as without there being proper legislation and scrutiny in place, covert surveillance could be seen as in infringement on Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights which grants everyone the right to ‘respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence’.

Article 8 is one of the Convention’s ‘qualified‘ rights meaning that in the right circumstances, surveillance can be carried out if it is necessary, done so legally and in the pursuit of a legitimate aim.

The Act defines ‘covert‘ in relation to steps having been taken to ensure the subject is unaware that surveillance is taking place. ‘Surveillance‘ means monitoring, observing or listening to people, their movements, activities and includes making recordings of this information.

When it comes to the police stakeout, the Act splits our powers into two categories – ‘directed‘ and ‘intrusive‘ surveillance.

Directed surveillance means employing techniques during the course of an investigation that are likely to result in the obtaining of private information about a person. Information collected as a result of day to day activities or in response to something that has happened there and then (hiding behind a lamp post to observe suspicious activity, for example) would not qualify as ‘directed’ for the purposes of the Act.

Intrusive surveillance is different to the above as it involves the collection of information taking place inside a residential premises or private vehicle, be it by placing a bug or having an officer stood in the corner of a room disguised as a pot plant. Because it involves intentionally invading a place in which a person could reasonably expect privacy, intrusive surveillance is, to understate, a big deal.

Who can authorise us then to cut eye holes in a newspaper and sit outside someone’s house? Well, for directed surveillance we need to have obtained the authorisation of a Superintendent.

To launch intrusive surveillance though, we need to go to the head honcho himself – the Chief Constable. Even with the green light from the Chief though, the authorisation also needs the approval of the Office of Surveillance Commissioners before it can go ahead. In addition to this, intrusive surveillance will only be authorised in relation to the investigation of the most serious crime, again ensuring that it is proportionate and so does not breach Human Rights law.

A stakeout isn’t simply a matter of parking up outside someone’s house and nor should it be. The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act is there to ensure that police powers are set out clearly and used properly. It doesn’t stop us spending long nights guzzling doughnuts and talking about the ball game, it just means that we’re there for the right reasons.

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11 Responses to “I’m conquered in a car seat, and I’m lookin’ straight at you…”


  1. 1 Private Detective London 24/10/2011 at 14:43

    Thanks for sharing this very interesting post. In my opinion you really cannot beat a good stakeout. With the use of cameras installed just about everywhere today we are all under surveillance of one form or another.

  2. 2 anon 24/10/2011 at 15:50

    Why do you need authority to watch someone in a public space? What’s the significance of a Superintendent’s authorisation or even a CC? Why not do what most democracies do and get a warrant from a judge?

    • 3 PC Richard Stanley 25/10/2011 at 11:47

      When it comes to surveillance, the most important consideration is whether private information is likely to be obtained as this is where Article 8 comes into relevance, hence why if we set out to observe someone in public we need authority.

      Getting authorisation is part of the checks and balances system – it means that an operation has been properly assessed prior to commencement so to ensure that Human Rights legislation is not infringed upon. Warrants are usually required if we wanted to force entry to conduct a search but as the law stands at the moment, they’re not required for surveillance.

      • 4 anon 25/10/2011 at 21:01

        Authorisation by one police officer of another police operation is neither a check nor a balance but a piece of unnecessary bureaucracy (like the rest of RIPA). The fact that you need any kind of authority or paperwork to simply watch someone in a public space shows how ridiculous the bureaucracy surrounding police actions has become.

    • 5 PC Richard Stanley 25/10/2011 at 23:34

      But don’t you think when it comes to bugging someone’s home, there needs to be some system in place to help ensure that the course of action taken is justified?

      Much of RIPA is about protecting the right to privacy from unnecessary violation and whilst the way it goes about doing so may be up for debate, it’s an important right to try and preserve. Otherwise do we risk sliding towards the world of ‘1984’?

      • 6 anon 26/10/2011 at 01:12

        When it comes to bugging someone’s home then obviously you need authorisation, but from the judiciary, not a policeman (even a senior one). RIPA won’t stop us sliding towards 1984, in fact the explicit lack of judicial oversight and needless paperwork will make the slide all the faster.

      • 7 PC Richard Stanley 26/10/2011 at 22:03

        But then the involvement of the Office of Surveillance Commissioners affords judicial review to intrusive surveillance applications as its representatives are judges. I can’t comment on what the paperwork is like in relation to an application although I would have thought this is one of the areas where a decent audit trail is desirable?

  3. 8 Dr Melvin 'Banned from most police blogs' Gray 25/10/2011 at 11:20

    I start to doubt that your heart is really in your official task, PC Stanley.

    You fail to respond to points made by members of the public and you appear to be very easily ‘intimidated’ by abusive and foul mouthed Gadgetistas.

    If you are less intimdated than sympathetic, your blog becomes another pointless venue for civilian comment.

    • 9 PC Richard Stanley 25/10/2011 at 11:57

      I’m always happy to respond to members of the public, I take the view though that I’m under no obligation to spend my time replying to abusive comments, especially when those who have left them have openly stated that they’ve been left to be unhelpful.

      Rather than being intimidated I’m all for sensible debate, I just don’t see that abuse has any part in such debate and so I’d rather not participate – I think that’s fair.

    • 10 justmorecannonfodder 27/10/2011 at 20:16

      Melvin
      you really are away with the fairies my old mucka!

      stay mad my friend and watch out for those pesky agents of the state hiding in your wardrobe.

      You do know Gadget is in fact a double agent and actually a lizard being in charge of ACPO? Its a global conspiracy, trust me!

  4. 11 jaded 25/10/2011 at 13:09

    Richard,you obviously haven’t had much experience of Dr Melvin.The clue is in his screen-name.He was initially supportive of your blogs as he hates you less than the “Gadgetistas” he keeps mentioning.However once he has reeled you in and you think that he is a reasonable man he then shows his true “anti-police” colours.Even a very community mind chap as yourself cannot win him over.


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