Quite a few retired undercover officers carry a serious grudge against their former employer, that much the Metropolitan police acknowledge in submissions to the Pitchford Inquiry. In applications currently under review, however, the Met spells out the efforts made to gain the trust of these spycops and the subsequent time spent on mental support.
We think there is a bit more to say about this sudden concern for the wellbeing of the long-lost spycops. As a matter of fact, the submissions reveal how little the police cared so far. Until late last year, the Met had no clue whatsoever where to find their most secret former employees. In addition, the details published now confirm that the Met has failed their undercover officers for decades. They had no welfare policy in place, and even after Mark Kennedy was exposed and the scandal broke, nothing happened – until the Pitchford Inquiry came along.
The revealing submissions to the Inquiry come from two officers tasked by the Met with locating and liaising with former spycops, known as ‘Operation Motion’. Code-named ‘Karachi’ and ‘Jaipur’, the pair were chosen because of their long careers in Special Branch – careers very similar but not identical to that of the undercover officers (or so they say). This closeness is said to be essential to build rapport with the spycops.
The two apply for anonymity, not for themselves, but to protect the identity of the spycops some of whom they now see on a regular basis. If pictures of the liaisons were circulated on the internet, they would no longer be able to do their job. The Met wants Pitchford to believe that so-called anti-UCO-activists would be able to set up surveillance so serious that following the two around would eventually lead to discovering meetings with vulnerable undercover officers in public places.
For the Met, exposure has to be prevented to any cost. In submissions to the Pitchford Inquiry, they boast about the positive effect of the enhanced welfare provided by Operation Motion today, claiming to assist ‘several former SDS officers suffering from bad psychological states, who had not previously engaged with available support processes.’
In their current plea to handle the spycops with care, the Met fail to explain how the undercovers landed in such a bad situation in the first place. Contrary to what is claimed in the submissions, there was hardly any regular psychological support for undercovers at any time. Internal police documents released under the Freedom of Information Act (FoI) show that ‘Welfare Policy’ has always been a neglected issue within the SDS; and it was not much better in the NPOIU, the undercover team after that, as we will detail here.
Apart from that, another major omission needs to be mentioned. While we are asked to understand the permanent stress former spycops have to live with, nowhere in the submissions is there any recognition of the harm done by the undercovers to campaigning groups and the broken trust in personal friendships with unwitting activists. A reference to the detailed, unreserved apology in November 2015 issued by Assistant Commissioner Martin Hewitt in the legal case of the women over relationships with spycops would have been appropriate to start with. Likewise, a mention of the settlement pay-out to Jacqui would have been pertinent. In 2012, she found out that the dedicated father of her child who had disappeared from their lives more than two decades ago had in fact been an undercover officer, Bob Lambert.
Without acknowledgement of damage caused and taking some responsibility for harm done, there is no way the Public Inquiry is going to work.
Operation Motion was set up in late 2013 as the unit responsible for the risk management and welfare of the SDS officers still on the force – an extra task for three officers working on the National Domestic Extremism and Disorder Intelligence Unit. It was only after the Pitchford Inquiry was announced by mid-2014, that the Met decided to make it a full time role and to include all those who had served on the Unit since 1968.
Operation Motion moved to the Assistant Commissioner – Public Inquiry Team, or AC-PIT, the point of contact between the Met and the Pitchford Inquiry. This is where ‘Karachi’ and ‘Jaipur’ come in. Their task is to assess the risk and welfare, starting with former SDS officers currently serving at high risk positions, and working their way backwards in time with retired officers in reverse chronological order. At some point the NPOIU officers were added to the workload.
In January 2015, when ‘Karachi’ and ‘Jaipur’ started their work, there was no comprehensive list of all officers who had served undercover on the two units, while the information that was available did not always include up to date contact details. (This was four years after the undercover scandal broke early 2011.) However, by the end of the year a large majority of the spycops had been reached plus a number of officers who held other operational roles in the secret units.
Duty of Care
Locating long lost colleagues was not even the hardest part, as it turned out. A significant part of Operation Motion involved gaining rapport and trust with former SDS officers. As was mentioned above, a number of the former undercovers had suffered psychiatric damage as a consequence of their deployments, leading to ill health retirement and civil claims against the Met for breach of the employer’s duty of care. As a result, they had developed a considerably hostility towards the Met and everybody associated with it, including the Pitchford Inquiry:
The hostility should not have come as a surprise for Operation Motion, as Rob Evans and Paul Lewis discussed this issue at length in their 2012 book Undercover, The True Story of Britain’s Secret Police, as will be detailed below.
Furthermore, previously released internal police files show that mental health support was never an easy issue within the SDS. The next part of this blogpost quotes from the analyses of the SDS Welfare Policy files at the SpecialBranchFiles.uk website, which also provides the original, redacted files, as they were released.
For a long time, the solution to distressed officers was to have a good drink with the lads down at the pub. This is confirmed by SDS officers Rob Evans and Paul Lewis talked to privately for their book Undercover, including one who said that when he was deployed in the 1970s, operatives who complained were considered wimps and risked being thrown off the squad.
The internal files show that the need for a sufficient welfare policy for undercover officers was first addressed in the early 2000s, more than 30 years after the SDS was founded. In the late 1990s several officers had filed legal acts against the Met for negligence and stated it failed to monitor, support, counsel and care for them during and after those duties. They were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and deemed unfit to serve any further.
One of them was Peter Francis, now whistle blower, who ended his undercover tour of duty in September 1997. When he argued internally that his infiltration of anti-racist groups should be disclosed to the public inquiry headed by Sir William Macpherson into the police failures to find the killers of Stephen Lawrence, his superiors refused.
Years later, in April 2001, Francis was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and deemed unfit to serve any further. In Undercover, where he figures as Pete Black, Evans and Lewis report that the Met retired him and gave him a pension at the age of 36. Together with another former undercover officer who had also developed PTSD, Francis launched legal action against the Met about his treatment which settled in 2006 with undisclosed compensation.
Still according to Francis, six out of the ten SDS officers serving alongside him experienced psychological issues. The SDS dismissed this claim, saying the fact that the other officers had returned to work after their deployment proved there was no wider problem. Not long after, three more former SDS officers left the Met. One retrained as a teacher, another emigrated to Canada to work as a lumberjack, while a third transferred to a force outside London, hoping for a quieter life.
It is clear from the documents that implementing a sufficient welfare policy is motivated as much by minimizing the potential for litigation by former officers with serious mental health problems as a result of their undercover tour, as by the actual need for support:
The document summarizing the development of the SDS Welfare Policy shows that at first the SDS did not think regular psychiatric examinations were needed for their undercover officers, even though a 1996 HMIC report recommended regular 6-monthly evaluations for undercovers operating in the criminal field. When the MPS Occupational Health department brought it up again in 2000, the psychiatrist used by the SDS on an on-and-off basis until then warned against ‘over-psychiatrising people’s problems’. Asking the field officers what problems they had experienced seemed a better idea.
At a certain point, when the need for counselling seems more accepted within the SDS, the argument shifts towards the lack of cooperation of Occupational Health and the issue of who has to pay for the support. The SDS accuses the Met of not treating psychiatric support seriously.
It is unclear if the last version of the SDS Welfare Policy of March 2002, released to Rob Evans, is indeed the final version. A File Note dated 12 December 2001 lists the arrangements to come into effect at the first of January 2002: these include counselling at least every six months, a debrief, and unlimited additional counselling, including for office staff and those close to the undercover officers. No agreement on who pays for the support has been reached by May that year, a pressing issue as Occupational Health had refused to contribute and the costs were being met by the SDS Operational Expenses budget. The Summary document notes that an agreement was reached subsequently that the costs would be provided from central Special Branch funds. A funding request in December 2003 to evaluate a system of support was refused.
The SDS folded in 2008, while its twin, the NPOIU, continued to exist at a national level until 2011. Whether the new unit protected the welfare of its officers any better remains to be seen. Mark Kennedy, the undercover officer deployed by the NPOIU to infiltrate the environmental movement for seven years, claimed the welfare policy was still a mess. He has said:
I was supposed to get psychological counselling every three months. I would go two years without seeing the shrink. Initially meetings were regular. Then it became a farce. The office was so greedy for intelligence that they didn’t set up the meetings. They went by the wayside. I’m sure that’s the same for other undercover officers too.
Given that it took 30 years to start thinking about setting up some form of welfare policy for the SDS, that Kennedy complains about the lack thereof within the NPOIU just before the unit ended, and that the Met is digging up damaged and disgruntled officers today for the Pitchford Inquiry, it seems unlikely anything serious was ever established by way of mental health support. That’s more than enough to engender ‘considerable hostility’ for those responsible.
For more detail see the SDS Welfare Policy story and find out about the persistence that was needed to get these files released under the Freedom of Information Act at the Special Branch Files.uk website.