An inquiry into undercover police operations in activist groups has concluded that the deployments were unjustified and would have been “brought to a rapid end” if the public had known what was really going on.
The Undercover Policing Inquiry, set up eight years ago by the then Home Secretary, Theresa May, released its interim report last month, which found that there was no justification for the way in which undercover police officers from the Metropolitan Police infiltrated left-wing and anarchist groups and that if their activities were made public, it would have been ended.
The inquiry is examining the conduct of 139 undercover police officers over four decades who spied on more than 1000 mainly left-wing groups. It is chaired by Sir John Mitting, a retired judge, who will determine the outcome of the examination.
The much-delayed inquiry was set up after it was reported that undercover police officers had spied on the family of murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence during their campaign for justice, calling for police to investigate the racist murder of their son properly.
The interim report looks at the time period between 1968, when the Special Operations Squad, later renamed to the Special Demonstration Squad, was formed, up until 1982. The report found that some of the methods used “would have been bound to have given rise to legitimate public concern and to embarrassment to the commissioner and to his police authority – the home secretary.”
Sir John stated: “The principal, stated purpose of the Special Demonstration Squad was to assist uniformed police to control public order in London. Long-term deployments into left-wing and anarchist groups did make a real contribution to achieving this end.
“The question is whether or not the end justified the means set out above. I have come to the firm conclusion that, for a unit of a police force, it did not; and that had the use of these means been publicly known at the time, the Special Demonstration Squad would have been brought to a rapid end.”
The Metropolitan Police has apologised for the “enormous distress that has been caused” by these undercover operations and said that they had gone through “radical reform” since then. They did, however, refuse to either confirm or deny whether protest groups were still being infiltrated to this day.
It will be another three years before the full findings are published, and the inquiry will extend over a far longer period, reviewing Metropolitan police undercover operations up until at least 2010.
The findings of the report
Between 1968 and 2010, 139 officers were sent on covert operations – usually lasting around four years. They adopted fake personas and pretended to be activists while infiltrating political movements such as campaigns against racism, the Vietnam War and apartheid.
It was found that male undercover police officers had formed sexual relationships and had even fathered children with female activists who had no idea of their true identity. It’s claimed that as many as 20 undercover officers deceived women into relationships, some of which lasted years. Mitting said that during this round of investigations, at least six undercover officers were found to have had sexual relationships with women during their deployment.
One officer, Vincent Harvey, admitted to having four “one-night stands” with women whilst infiltrating the Socialist Workers Party between 1976 and 1979. This account was challenged by a woman known only as Madeleine, who testified that she and he had a relationship that lasted two months. Mitting concluded that he believed her evidence was true.
After the report was published, Madeline was quoted as saying in the Guardian that: “Harvey lied, hoping it would never come out 40 years later. Unfortunately for him, I came forward, and the chair believed me over this very senior police officer. How many lies have been told by other officers whose victims were unnamed and unknown?”
Another woman named Ms Wilson was paid more than £200,000 compensation by the Metropolitan Police last year after she was deceived into a relationship with an undercover police officer named Mark Kennedy.
In a piece recently published in the Guardian, a woman named Alison wrote about having mixed feelings towards the report. She, along with seven other women, brought a legal case against the Metropolitan Police after they were deceived into intimate sexual relationships with undercover police officers. She stated how it was a “major victory” for those who had campaigned to expose the human rights violations by these undercover operations.
Many of the women tricked into intimate relationships with these officers state that they feel used, degraded, and abused. This kind of behaviour is a blatant abuse of power and is unacceptable. One woman with the pseudonym Lindsay, who gave evidence at the Undercover Policing Inquiry, condemned the practice by “what should be a trusted institution of public servants” and argued women who were tricked into relationships with officers did not “meaningfully consent”.
Officers were also found to have used the controversial technique of stealing the identity of dead children without getting permission from their bereaved relatives to further their alter ego and even took up senior positions in the groups they were infiltrating.
Many of the bereaved families have demanded answers, as they want to know if the “callous misuse of their loved ones’ identities” and “abuse of their loved ones’ memories” were necessary or served legitimate policing purposes.
The report states: “Long-term deployments into political groups inevitably required the undercover officer, male or female, to befriend members of the target groups and to enter into their personal and political lives.
“Putting to one side the risk that sexual relationships might develop, this intrusion into the lives of many hundreds of people in this era required cogent justification before it should have been contemplated as a police tactic.”
Sir John stated that none of the issues appeared to have been addressed by senior officers with the Metropolitan Police Service or by Home Office officials during this period.
He also said that a report from 1976 conducted by senior Met officers into these operations concluded that the work of undercover officers was of “extreme importance” in helping to police public order functions.
However, in this report, he found that issues around the methods used by officers were not examined.
Although the government knew about the operations, what they didn’t find from the report was who at the highest level knew and signed off on the tactics used that Sir John believes would have led them to be shut down.
Sir John says: “If these issues had been addressed, it is hard to see how any conclusion could legitimately have been reached which would not have resulted in the closure of the SDS (Special Demonstration Squad).”
The inquiry continues to assess the “unacceptable and immoral behaviour” of officers
This is just an interim report, and there are many more years of undercover policing to review.
At the launch of this report, journalists were told that concerns such as the impact of women due to the conduct of male officers towards them and the use of dead children’s names as a tactic may become “bigger issues in later years”.
In the report foreword, Sir John states this is still a work in progress and that some issues are better addressed when all of the evidence about them is in, notably:
(i) The impact of the conduct of male police officers on women deceived into sexual relationships with them and on the families of officers;
(ii) The impact on the surviving relatives of deceased children of the adoption of their identity; and
(iii) The purpose of gathering intelligence on “justice” campaigns.
He states, “For the same reason, I have refrained from expressing any general conclusions about the attitude of police officers and managers within the unit towards deceitful sexual relationships during deployments.”
The Met Police acknowledged that a “legacy of hurt” has been caused by the “unacceptable and immoral behaviour” of some police officers.
One campaigner, Donal O’Driscoll, said to the Evening Standard: “The inquiry isn’t over, and when it looks at later spying it will find these same patterns of abuse went on for decades and got worse, with the founding of a second unit in 1999.
“We are outraged by the intrusive tactics used against us and the lack of oversight, but it only demonstrates what we already knew – that the Metropolitan Police is out of control, both then and now.
“They remain a deeply sexist, racist and homophobic institution, despite being put in special measures last year.
“The inquiry shows that these problems have been deep-rooted for decades.”
The report states it will report to the Home Secretary as soon as practicable. It will also make recommendations as to the future deployment of undercover police officers.
Have you been affected by police misconduct?
If you think you may have been affected by these undercover operations, you can get in touch with the Undercover Policing Inquiry. Although they are doing what they can to identify and contact the individuals affected, this can take time, and it can be hard to identify or trace the right individuals. The Inquiry publishes the cover names of officers to help people identify if they were affected and to encourage them to come forward.
The Inquiry has invited parents or close relatives of deceased individuals who would like to know whether their relative’s identity was used by an undercover officer to get in touch with them.
If you have been affected by these undercover operations, you could be entitled to claim compensation. Many of the actions of officers during these operations are unacceptable and classed as abuse of power and misconduct. Their actions can, and have, caused long-term distress and damage to many individuals. If you have suffered as a result of police misconduct, you are entitled to claim compensation.
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