Undercover policing culture denounced by UK watchdog
The HMIC’s review, which evaluated the oversight of Britain’s undercover police officers, was sanctioned by Home Secretary Theresa May. The watchdog is responsible for independently monitoring policing across the nation in the wider public's interest.
May commissioned the probe following revelations that undercover police officers had spied on the family of Stephen Lawrence, a teenager who was murdered in a racially motivated attacked in 1993.
Allegations of officers cultivating relationships with activists they were spying on, and suggestions others utilized deceased babies’ birth certificates as aliases, have compounded public concern in recent years relating to covert policing in Britain.
The watchdog’s review, published on Tuesday, highlighted multiple shortcomings relating to the deployment and oversight of 1,239 undercover officers working across 39 separate units throughout England and Wales.
HMIC inspectors warned a lack of knowledge and expertise, particularly among senior officials, was intolerable. The HMIC stressed the shortcomings of such senior officers threatened to undermine undercover officers' potential of catching criminals.
Drawing from its evaluation of 43 forces and myriad organizations, including the National Crime Agency, the HMIC denounced a “culture of secrecy”it claimed obstructs adequate scrutiny of covert policing in Britain. Evidence that five UK police forces had failed to respond to Britain’s rising threat of cyber criminality, and had neglected to orchestrate investigations via the web, also emerged during the HMIC’s review.
By publicly disclosing the scale and breath of the state's undercover police operations, the HMIC’s report broached previously unseen territory. The watchdog revealed some 3,466 covert operations in England and Wales had taken place between October 2009 and September 2013. While HMIC inspectors did not disclose details of these operations, the watchdog said undercover investigations had been targeted at petty, street criminals selling illegal drugs or stolen wares, as well as terrorists and pedophiles.
The watchdog failed to reveal the number of undercover police officials currently deployed to monitor and target political organizations in Britain. But Stephen Otter, the HMIC inspector who headed the review, referenced the manner in which undercover officers had cultivated sexual relationships with females they were spying on as an example of how covert policing was being ill-supervised, and ill-monitored in the UK.
Otter’s damning criticism comes amid growing public concern sparked by revelations concerning Met officer Mark Kennedy. Kennedy allegedly spied on and infiltrated environmental groups for seven years - and engaged in affairs with several of the groups' campaigners.
Ministers pledged to initiate reforms in the field of undercover policing in 2011, following the revelations surrounding Kennedy. But the HMIC’s most recent evaluation suggests a drastic overhaul of the sector is still required.
Central to the HMIC’s report, are 49 recommendations relating to “policies, systems, training and leadership of undercover operations," which if implemented will address "unacceptable inconsistencies and shortcomings" highlighted by the watchdog's review. Whether such recommendations will be adopted, however, remains to be seen.
Policy recommendations stemming from a previous evaluation, which stipulated undercover officers should be issued with adequate levels of psychological support, were never implemented according to the HMIC.
Responding to the watchdog’s most recent probe, Britain’s head of undercover policing, Deputy Chief Constable Jon Boutcher, told The Independent those responsible for the oversight of undercover policing operations have a responsibility to ensure they are “properly authorized, managed and overseen.”
“Unacceptable behavior by a number of undercover officers in the past has been brought to light and is being investigated,” he said.
“We have learned many lessons from these cases. I want to reassure the public that undercover operations are subject to a scrupulous authorization process and are now rigorously overseen.”
Home Secretary Theresa May said issues identified in the HMIC’s review were confined to the past, but stressed “the public must have confidence that the behavior described in those reports is not happening now and cannot happen in the future.”
May emphasized the watchdog’s report revealed that undercover officers generally carry out their roles in a professional manner and “undercover policing as a tactic is essential.”
She acknowledged, however, “there are still important improvements to be made.”