Police have apologised to a Christian street preacher after threatening him with arrest and forcing him to leave Bath city centre.
Avon and Somerset Police have contacted all police staff in Bath “to ensure that they understand the importance of freedom of expression”.
The Christian Institute supported street preacher Dale McAlpine over the incident and welcomed the result – while warning about the use of dispersal powers.
On 25 June Mr McAlpine and a group of street preachers gathered in Bath city centre to tell passers-by the good news of Jesus Christ.
There should have been no threat of arrest
Police issued a dispersal notice and ordered the preachers to leave the city centre.
One of the officers claimed the preachers were committing a “hate crime”, and two police vehicles came to the scene with lights flashing.
Threatened with arrest and not wanting to cause a problem, Mr McAlpine left, despite his deep concerns about the lawfulness of the notice.
With The Christian Institute’s support, Mr McAlpine complained to Avon and Somerset Police which has now stated: “There should have been no threat of arrest”.
Avon and Somerset’s Sergeant Jonathan Raisey admitted that it was not appropriate to issue a dispersal notice, that “officers should have acted differently”, and said freedom of speech is “an essential part of a democratic society”.
On the actions of the street preachers, Sergeant Raisey said, having watched the body camera footage, their behaviour was “absolutely acceptable”.
“Instead of dispersing your group I would have expected that my officers would have remained at the location to protect the right of your client’s group to free speech.”
He added that the only people “in danger from the angry crowd” would have been the preachers.
The Christian Institute’s Director Colin Hart welcomed the police’s response but said it was concerning that dispersal powers were being used in this way.
“Christians have the freedom to preach on the streets. That right was hard won down the centuries and it is important that it is upheld.
“The treatment of the street preachers was very concerning. The law cannot be used to clamp down on legitimate free speech.
“We successfully campaigned to stop Section 5 of the Public Order Act being misused in this way.
“We don’t want dispersal notices to be similarly misused. Vigilance is needed.
“Avon and Somerset Police’s response to the complaint underlines the freedom of Christians to preach about Jesus on our streets.”