Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) warns stringent reform is required in the UK’s undercover policing. Citing senior officers’ lack of expertise as unacceptable, the watchdog’s report calls for a radical overhaul of the sector.
The HMIC’s review, which evaluated the control of Britain’s undercover police officials, was sanctioned by Home Secretary Theresa May.
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 other officers utilizing deceased babies’ birth certificates as aliases, have compounded ethical and legal concerns in recent years relating to covert policing in Britain.
The watchdog’s review, published on Tuesday, revealed a network of 1,239 undercover officers working across 39 separate units throughout England and Wales. Responsible for independently monitoring policing across the nation, the HMIC’s evaluation highlights multiple shortcomings relating to the deployment and oversight of undercover officers.
HMIC inspectors warned that a lack of knowledge and expertise, particularly among senior officers, was intolerable. Following its probe, it concluded radical reform was vital. The shortcomings of such senior officers threatened to undermine undercover officers’ attempts to catch criminals, the HMIC warned.
Drawing from its evaluation of 43 forces and other organizations, including the National Crime Agency, the HMIC report denounced a “culture of secrecy” and its “closed nature,” which it claims obstructs adequate scrutiny of covert policing in the UK.
Evidence that five UK police forces had failed to respond to Britain’s rising threat of cyber criminality, and were not orchestrating any investigations via the web, also emerged during the HMIC’s probe.
By publicly disclosing the scale and breath of undercover police work in Britain, the HMIC’s report broached new, previously unseen territory. The watchdog revealed some 3,466 covert police 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 and groups. But Stephen Otter, the HMIC inspector who headed the review, referenced the manner in which undercover police officials had cultivated sexual relationships with females they were spying on as an example of how covert policing was being misused, ill-supervised, and ill-monitored in Britain.
Otter’s damning criticism comes amid growing public concern over undercover police officials’ activities, sparked by revelations that initially emerged in 2011 concerning Met Police official Mark Kennedy. Kennedy had allegedly spied on environmental campaigners and engaged in affairs with several of them.
Ministers had pledged to initiate reforms in the field of undercover policing in 2011, following revelations Kennedy had targeted and infiltrated environmental groups for up to seven years. But the HMIC’s most recent probe reveals a radical overhaul of the sector is still required.
Inherent in the HMIC’s report are 49 recommendations relating to “policies, systems, training and leadership of undercover operations, which if implemented should address the unacceptable inconsistencies and shortcomings that we have found.”
But whether such recommendations will be adopted remains to be seen.
The HMIC’s most recent probe of covert policing reveals how senior officers ignored recommendations in a previous evaluation, which stipulated undercover officers should be issued with adequate levels of psychological support.
Responding to the watchdog’s review, 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 historic, 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.”