Information to debunk some of the myths about spycops and undercover political policing.
If you’ve got nothing to hide.
Undercover political policing has nothing to do with policing criminality. The two Special Branch undercover units (the Special Demonstration Squad or SDS, and the National Public Order Intelligence Unit or NPOIU) being investigated by the Undercover Policing Inquiry placed under surveillance and reported on more than one thousand political groups including tens of thousands of individuals. This included elected Members of Parliament who had their offices infiltrated – such as Jeremy Corbyn and Diane Abbott; respected parliamentarians with decades of service.
It’s often said that if you’re innocent, you have nothing to fear from the eye of the law. When thinking about the deep violation of privacy of those of us spied upon, this truism is unhelpful and misleading.
These operations were about political control: surveillance of pretty much anyone who campaigned and fought for social and family justice. It is significant that among the thousand plus groups named by the Inquiry so far only three are on the right of the political spectrum.
The role of these units was not to detect or investigate crime. No criminal prosecutions resulted from any information passed on by these undercover officers who – unlike their counterparts in undercover units monitoring organised crime – were never expected to give evidence in court. Their role was to gather intelligence on democratic protest and to report that back to their managers presumably to inform decision making elsewhere.
It’s the same as any cheating boyfriend.
This is an argument often put by those struggling to make sense of the complexity of the highly unusual intrusion of privacy experienced by women deceived into intimate relationships with undercover officers. It is sometimes said by people who wish to minimise the experience.
It is true that the men deployed as undercover officers lied and deceived the women they were involved with but that is where the similarity with a cheating boyfriend begins and ends.
From the small amount of disclosure that we have received to date it is clear that the senior officers, undercover officers’ handlers and back room staff knew about and enabled this behaviour. The officers’ fake identities including passports, national insurance cards and driving licenses were paid for by tax payers. This was state sponsored, professional deception.
There is a long-term psychological impact of discovering that you have been deceived into a relationship or long-term friendship in order for you, your friends and family to be secretly reported upon. If the officer had embedded themselves over a long time period, a feeling of intense paranoia is often a consequence. It can be a struggle to make others believe your suspicions of being under surveillance, and many have spoken about this causing distance from previously close friends and family. Feelings of anger and injustice also are common. Altogether stress, sleeplessness, paranoia and complete trust breakdown are felt for significant periods. This psychological damage is central to the women’s legal challenges of those responsible for this abuse.
Unlike those betrayed by an unfaithful boyfriend or husband, we have very specific questions relating to Metropolitan police deployments in order to make sense of our relationships. These include:
o How many of our intensely private communications were documented and shared?
o What information from our relationships is recorded in official documentation?
o Who listened in to our phone calls with our ‘partners’?
o Who decided whether our ‘partner’ was free to go on holiday/have a night out/sleep over?
o Were the women specifically chosen or targeted for relationships?
o Was there a competitive machismo in these units that made these officers want to outdo each other in their depth of deception of their target activists?
From the small amount of information we have so far, it is clear that this is state-sanctioned sexual abuse. Furthermore we know that all of these officers had wives and often children at home, who they went back to when we thought they were ‘at work’ whilst the reality was that we were their work. This abuse of their families, in collusion with higher ranking officers, adds an extra dimension to the institutionally sexist character of these deployments. To understand these relationships, there is far more to consider than simply a cheating boyfriend.
It’s just a few bad apples….
It’s definitely not just a few. In fact this is exactly the message the Metropolitan police would like us all to believe. At best, they might concede it’s a rogue unit that lacked oversight and management. However, as of autumn 2019 there are at least twenty officers who have been exposed to have had deceitful intimate relationships with more than thirty women. By hanging the unit out to dry, the institution aims to protect itself and its most senior officers from contamination by the toxic practices it has facilitated and enabled.
The UCPI has granted anonymity to two thirds of those officers who applied for it. Unless they admit to an intimate relationship with a member of the public in their false identity – which is highly unlikely – we will never know if these officers had one relationship, several or none at all.
We believe that (predominantly) men competed against each other to instigate relationships and long-term friendships, emulating their unit managers or other officers considered to have had ‘successful’ deployments. Their egos were flattered and sticking to the squad’s motto ‘By Any Means’ the tactic of sleeping with women to shore up fake identities became custom and practice.
Only married officers were recruited to these units – it was seemingly anticipated by senior officers that these men were in danger of abandoning their ‘real’ lives for their manufactured ones and managers made welfare visits to the officer and his wife to ensure the relationship was strong enough to withstand the pressure of undercover deployment.
These units operated within a framework of institutional sexism where women were regarded as dispensable objects that could be manipulated and used. This is not a story about a couple of badly behaved individuals; rather it’s a depressing tale of misogyny, exploitation and state-funded, institutional abuse.
It’s all in the past – policing is different now.
There is a perception that this type of intrusive and prolonged surveillance took place decades in the past. In fact we know that the National Public Order Intelligence Unit (NPOIU) was involved in operations up until 2011, when the unit was merged into ‘Counter Terrorism Command’ (CTC), operated by the Metropolitan police. CTC exists to this day.
The judge chairing the Undercover Policing Inquiry has granted almost all of NPOIU officers complete anonymity (including their cover names) giving as justification the fact that they are, or recently were, active field officers. Without their cover names it is virtually impossible for anyone affected by their wrongdoing to come forward. We have less hard evidence that the NPOIU perpetrated the same practices but there is nothing to suggest otherwise.
The line in the sand drawn by the first eight legal cases brought by women affected led to the College of Policing rewriting its guidance about such practices and the apology to those eight women from the police made clear the practice was unacceptable and wrong. These statements and guidelines, however, have made little impact on the way women who are still fighting their cases have been treated by the police and as the first women were forced to settle out of court, no new case law has been established.
The growing sophistication of electronic surveillance may mean that officers no longer need to embed themselves in activist circles to the extent they did previously. That being the case, surveillance is likely to be as intrusive of privacy but by different means.
The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA) governs undercover operations by both the police and security services (MI5 and MI6). This legislation allows for sexual relationships with targets only if to prevent a threat to the life of an undercover officer. We have never been provided with a compelling argument to illustrate how this might work. How might a sexual relationship prevent a life-threatening situation? Nevertheless, unless this legislation is reformed, such abuse is likely to continue without any possibility of legal sanction.
It’s dangerous times – we need undercover cops.
Undercover policing of terrorist groups and serious criminality, and undercover policing of activists and family justice campaigns are two completely different and separate strands of policing.
The surveillance that we encountered was about political control and the undermining, and in some cases destruction, of groups working towards greater equality and social justice.
Ordinary people were spied on. Groups were placed under surveillance for organising around issues including anti-war, anti-nuclear, anti-apartheid, environmental, anti-racist, animal rights, and trade unions. The offices of left-leaning Members of Parliament were included in the list of countless individuals and organisations all reported on in files which exist to this day and which we still haven’t seen.
The police have been quick to blur the lines between different types of policing by lumping us under the specious title of ‘domestic extremists’. It suits them to do so as they seek to legitimise these undemocratic, political policing deployments. We contest this with the assertion that protest is a protected human right that we have exercised to try to change society for the better. The threat of terrorism is a red herring to detract public attention from the appalling abuse of power by these undercover units.