Since 1968, the Police have used undercover tactics to infiltrate groups that posed what they considered a public order threat. Along the way, though, something went wrong. They began to put victims’ families under surveillance and infiltrate victim support groups. The police behaviour follows a trend that raises questions about their role and legitimacy today.
Where is the political oversight for undercover policing of victims’ families?
Although many of these cases are alleged, with some still being investigated, there are IPCC investigation reports and news reports that confirm some of them occurred. Even though neither the reports nor the outcomes are in the public domain, their existence raises questions about the police activity. In particular, they raise questions about the way in which they decided the surveillance was necessary. The Stephen Lawrence Independent Review (Aka Ellison Report) showed the police officers failed to reveal their role during trials, which suggests those convicted may have unsafe verdicts. Moreover, it appears that the undercover police work on victims was a police decision. They were only accountable to themselves. No political oversight of their activity existed. The Home Office have the political oversight for the police, yet they were unaware of this work. In light of these disclosures; surveillance of victims, lack of political oversight, and betrayal of due process, the police legitimacy is in question. Although the Metropolitan Police Service have tried to provide a bright and positive image, in recent news programmes such as The Met: Policing London, the reality is stark and scary. The police appear to be a law unto themselves, able to pursue anyone with impunity and without independent legal or political oversight.
Why are victims under surveillance is this the behaviour of honourable men?
The first question that emerges is why are victims under surveillance? At first glance, the answer might appear normal. They could be complicit in the crime or they could plan or instigate potential civil unrest. Often time the victims’ families want revenge or they may be part of an ongoing feud. For example, when a gang member kills a rival gang member there is likely to be a retaliatory attack or murder. The police have a public order responsibility to pre-empt and prevent these attacks to maintain public order. In this regard, such surveillance might appear normal. The police have a duty to protect the public and maintain the public order. However, who decides when a victim is a potential threat? What is the criteria for such a decision?
Are the police becoming a paramilitary force to impose order or do they enforce the law?
These questions remain unanswered. The police behaviour raises the issue of their role in society. It is time for a fundamental review of that role. Is the MPS a paramilitary force with responsibility for national security or if it is a law enforcement agency? In the former, a different set of laws apply than in the latter. Espionage is about national security and in that situation, the public safety as the fate of the society, not simply public order, is the higher law. Only when a society faces an existential threat, a threat to its survival, does public safety become the highest law. These situations are rare and exist as an exception to the normal state, which is a healthy political society at peace. By contrast, law enforcement is simply that, it enforces the law. It is not above the law because it only ensures the normal situation of lawful behaviour is sustained. Once the police engage in political espionage, and undercover policing that breaks the law and subverts due process of the law, is espionage, then they stop being law enforcement. The Crown cannot have its cake and eat it too. It cannot claim it rules by law and subvert the law. Otherwise, something else is higher than the rule of law.
Are the police an unelected political actor shaping our public lives?
When they undertake political espionage, or surveillance to gather political intelligence, the police become a political actor. As such, the immediate question has to be answered. Who has authorised that activity? Beyond the issue of who authorises surveillance, which is now covered by RIPA, is the larger question of who has directed the surveillance? Where is the political oversight of that decision? If democratically accountable ministers have not made the decision, then democracy is under threat. In effect, the police act arbitrarily and according to their operational need. The democratically elected Ministers relinquish their responsibility and the police can act as they wish. Such an approach may appear best for operational purposes, yet it undermines democracy and allows arbitrary unelected officials to decide on the targets of domestic political espionage. The police priorities determine the political priorities. It is a system open to abuse, an abuse of power, which undermines democratic legitimacy. Do we want a society where police can abuse their power with impunity and rationalise it as necessary for “public order” or “policing priorities”?
Where is the political oversight?
If the politicians direct this political intelligence gathering, where is the evidence? Where have they been accountable for it? If they don’t make that decision, who does? Is the UK political system one in which the police are a political tool for the government in power? If the police are not acting on political instruction, where is the democratic oversight and accountability? Is Parliament now an empty house where prerogative power rules without legal or political oversight? The end justifies the means only if the end is legitimate. What it appears from this historical trend and the recent reports is that the MPS and other police forces put victims under surveillance. They appear to rationalise it after the fact, as we are never told the criteria or reason for surveillance. Nor has anyone explained how victims could be a public order threat.
Are the Press part of the Police intelligence gathering system?
What is even more troubling is that the press seemed ready and willing to aid the police in their surveillance work. We know from the News International and News Corp employee, the Fake Sheik would work with the MPS to arrest people he had ensnared. We also know from the Milly Dowler case that the News of the World reporters claimed they were helping the police with their enquiries when they telephoned people about Milly Dowler. When the press become part of the intelligence gathering operation, do they cease to be journalists and become police informants? Do journalists continue that role even today with an unspoken agreement? When you talk to the press, are you really talking to the police, as they will betray you as their source if they deem it necessary?
Are the police institutionally corrupt?
In all these cases, there appears to be a corrupt activity. In a corrupt state, violence or the threat of violence pervades all relationships and the public discourse is used to rationalise such violence. Instead of a debate to decide whether to act and to act appropriately, what we find in a corrupt state is its acts are rationalised afterwards. The public debate is used to rationalise the often violent behaviour. Such behaviour would never be approved yet is rationalised afterwards as reputation management and damage control. When we look at the police behaviour through a political filter, we see a pattern of behaviour that should disturb any citizen in a decent society. The police appear to put victims and other parties under surveillance to protect their interests, to provide political intelligence, and then justify it as a public order issue afterwards. Is this the sign of a decent society; a legitimate police force; a government accountable to the public?
The past is prologue: troubling questions for the Goddard Inquiry
With the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (aka Goddard Inquiry) underway, a new question emerges. Have they placed the victims and survivors groups under surveillance as a potential public order threat? Have they infiltrated these groups with undercover officers? Has the MPS considered infiltrating these groups to investigate their threat to public safety? The historical trend suggest that this is a strong possibility. If we follow the historical logic the MPS appear to have used, it would indicate the victims and survivors are a potential threat to the regime and would need to be infiltrated and placed under surveillance.
The abuse of power occurs when it is unaccountable
Perhaps if the MPS explained these issues, and the senior officer decision process behind them, we would have more confidence in the police. If we had someone explain the reasons why victims’ families were under surveillance and where those reasons were tested we would be able to say we have police with integrity. Integrity exists when you are accountable for your behaviour and decisions. Integrity does not exist when you live by a code that might makes right and power excuses all behaviour. Without accountability the police become bullies with badges where policing becomes violence rationalised as necessary for public safety. All of this done without any oversight by politicians, who themselves have been under surveillance, or the public who are kept ignorant and fearful.
We have a choice, justice or the strong rule the weak.
We have to believe that the police act ethically and support the democratic rights we hold dear. For the most part, this is true and the expected police behaviour is the displayed police behaviour. However, if they believe themselves immune to such expected behaviour, they are protected while citizens suffer surveillance, then it suggests we have a corrupt police force. Worse, it suggests we have a corrupt political system where the strong rule the weak so long as the public are not aware of it.
Is that what recent events have shown to be the relationship between the politics and policing in the UK? Is it time for a change?
https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-stephen-lawrence-inquiry See also the case of Mark Kennedy who as an undercover officer infiltrated environmentalist activist group and the trials against the group members collapsed. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2011/mar/26/mark-kennedy-undercover-cop-environmental-activist See also Bob Lambert’s interview https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WJ2SFqny9So For the background to the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry, it is important to consider the Macphereson report
What is interesting to note is the following quotation from the Scarman Report into the Brixton Disorders.
6.8 In policing terms Lord Scarman also rejected the allegation that the MPS was a racist force. He said:-
“The direction and policies of the Metropolitan Police are not racist. I totally and unequivocally reject the attack made upon the integrity and impartiality of the senior direction of the force. The criticisms lie elsewhere – in errors of judgment, in a lack of imagination and flexibility, but not in deliberate bias or prejudice”. (Para 4.62, p 64).
The quotation is deeply ironic, in the context of this post, given what we now know about the undercover policing activity which was occurring from 1968 onward. Can we still say, in hindsight, that the senior direction of the force was as impartial and full of integrity as Scarman’s bold and decisive language would have us believe?
 https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/investigation-into-links-between-special-demonstration-squad-and-home-office “When funding ceased in 1989, no accountability was required until the SDS closed in 2008 and no significant evidence was identified of any links to the Home Office throughout this period. Outside of the annual reviews there is very little evidence to support any Home Office knowledge of the SDS and in particular no evidence was identified of any influence in operational activities.”
 http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b05z0tp0 it is curious, but not unexpected, to see a major UK news institution The BBC do a programme on a pillar of the establishment. However, this is not surprising. The overall focus is rather light on criticism and more on presenting a positive and reassuring message of hard working police. The episodes do not explore senior officer decision making on difficult cases such as Daniel Morgan Murder, Operation Tiberius or general Internal Affairs concerns. Instead, the show focused on frontline policing issues, which provide reassurance to the public, with only a minimal focus on midlevel decision making and no analysis of senior officer decisions.
 Corrupt means the normal or healthy society or organization has decayed. In this case, the police force was pursuing what it considered the public interest, which was its self-interest. In the latter operations against victims’ families, the police are acting in their self-interest in a way that undermines the public interest in a police force that acts with integrity and probity. Their organizational interest had been placed before the public interest and in conflict with the public interest. The organization is not corrupt for its pursuit of its own interests; it is that those interests were illegitimate. When that occurs, the police become corrupt. http://press.anu.edu.au/apps/bookworm/view/Corruption%3A+Expanding+the+focus/9901/ch02.html
 On the issue of elected politicians under surveillance see: http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2015/mar/25/police-spied-on-labour-mps-whistleblower
For more on the police surveillance capacity see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Public_Order_Intelligence_Unit For a report on the review of that unit in 2010 see https://www.justiceinspectorates.gov.uk/hmic/our-work/review-of-the-national-public-order-intelligence-unit-npoiu/