LONDON (CN) — A British investigation into the historic misuse of undercover policing has heard from witnesses that there was “no clear rationale, justification or necessity” for tactics used during the surveillance of thousands of political activists from the 1960s onwards.
The Special Demonstration Squad, which operated from 1968 to 2008, was a police unit tasked with infiltrating British protest groups perceived to be subversive by authorities. Its activities are at the heart of an exhaustive and long-delayed public inquiry, known as the Undercover Policing Inquiry, which is hearing evidence this week.
The current phase of the inquiry is focusing on espionage activities between 1973 and 1982. It has identified at least 1,000 groups that were infiltrated by police officers during this period, often on deployments that lasted several years. Groups targeted include feminist, antiwar, racial justice, animal rights and socialist organizations.
Many groups were targeted despite displaying no clear threat to public order, the inquiry has heard. On Wednesday, detective inspector Angus McIntosh told the inquiry that “there was a high-level policy decision” not to infiltrate groups on the far right, adding weight to suggestions that the use of undercover policing was politically motivated.
A major focus of the inquiry this week has shed further light on the death of Blair Peach, a teacher and antiracist campaigner killed by a blow to the head during a demonstration against a far-right National Front march in London in 1979. An internal police report concluding that Peach was “almost certainty” killed by a serving officer was kept private for almost 30 years, during which time Peach’s partner Celia Stubbs embarked on an exhaustive campaign for justice.
Evidence unearthed by the inquiry indicates the policing operation surrounding the demonstration was considerably more extensive than previously admitted, with lawyer Rajiv Menon suggesting that police may have been “under secret orders to use violence against antifascist demonstrators.” It has also been revealed that the police took photographs at Peach’s funeral, compiled a list of funeral attendees to gather further information on, and even monitored a memorial event for Peach held 20 years later. In addition, both Peach and Stubbs appear to have been subject to extensive monitoring by the police.
The focus on Peach’s death follows weeks of equally striking evidence given to the inquiry. Particularly notable revelations surround the practice of police officers assuming the identities of dead children in order to authenticate their fabricated personas. The inquiry has uncovered evidence of at least 42 officers stealing the details of dead children as part of their covert operations. Speaking on behalf of the victims, lawyer Heather Williams described this apparently commonplace approach to information gathering as “callous” and being a “grossly abusive technique that became an embedded cultural practice.” She said there was "no clear rationale, justification or necessity" for the practice.
The police have also been revealed to have conducted extensive information gathering on schoolchildren perceived to have left-wing political sympathies, including regular reporting on their location, interests and perceived sexual orientation. The inquiry has unearthed a request from British security services asking for the police to monitor “subversive activity in schools.” Speaking to the inquiry last year, an officer responsible for gathering information in schools admitted that “no consideration was given by me to the appropriateness of reporting on children.”
Perhaps the most high-profile issue being addressed by the proceedings, however, involves women who were deceived into engaging in often yearslong intimate relationships with undercover police officers, some of which led to the birth of children. An animal rights activist known only as Jacqui, who had a child with police infiltrator Bob Lambert, described her experience to Channel 4 in 2013 as “like being raped by the state.”
In a separate tribunal last year, judges ruled in favor of Kate Wilson, an environmental activist who was similarly tricked into a two-year relationship with another undercover police officer, Mark Kennedy. The tribunal accused the police of a “formidable list” of human rights violations and found that “the undercover operation could not be justified as necessary in a democratic society and reveals disturbing and lamentable failings at the most fundamental levels.”
Given the historic, widespread, secretive and complex nature of the activities under examination, the breadth of the landmark inquiry only appears to be growing as more evidence is unearthed.
Originally launched in 2015 by the then-Home Secretary Theresa May, the inquiry was initially tasked with examining revelations that the family of a high-profile murder victim had been spied on by the unit.
Stephen Lawrence, a teenager from South London, was murdered in a racially motivated attack in 1993. The bungled police investigation into the murder eventually led to a landmark public report which found that the Metropolitan Police – London’s scandal-hit police force – is institutionally racist. It subsequently became clear that the police had been covertly gathering information on Lawrence’s mother, Doreen, in order to discredit her after she publicly criticized the force’s failings.
The inquiry has subsequently indicated that “the deployment of undercover officers as a means of managing reputational damage to the Metropolitan Police” appeared to have become standard practice within the force.
The Special Demonstration Squad was wound down in 2008, but it remains far from clear that some of the activities highlighted by the inquiry have discontinued.
Earlier this year a Black Lives Matter group based in south Wales announced its decision to disband after claiming that a covert policing operation had attempted to recruit one of its members. And last year a former police officer who is now a prominent member of the environmental protest group Extinction Rebellion claimed that the Metropolitan Police had attempted to recruit him to monitor activists in the organization.
The British government passed legislation last year designed to legalize many of the activities highlighted by the Undercover Policing Inquiry. The Covert Human Intelligence Sources Act of 2021 authorized the police, security services and 11 other government agencies to break the law during undercover operations on the grounds of protecting national security. The lack of restrictions on permissible activities in the legislation promoted alarm among some human rights groups, with Amnesty International describing the law as a “license for government agencies to authorize torture and murder.”
In its opening statement to the inquiry back in 2020, the Metropolitan Police stated: “Undercover policing is intrusive. But it is not an inherently malign activity. Nor is political or social activism. Acknowledging this does not diminish either the real harm that improper or inadequate conduct by undercover officers and their managers can cause, or the real, criminal, dangers that some people present to the safety and security of the state and its citizens.”
“Undercover operations carry an intrinsic risk of harm,” the statement continued, “and every effort should therefore be made to negate that risk by ensuring that proper laws, policies, practices and training are in place and observed.”
Over the next few weeks the inquiry is scheduled to hear testimony from former officers and managers within the Special Demonstration Squad. The examination of activities conducted by undercover officers over the following decade – between 1983 and 1992 – is scheduled for 2024.
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