New Internationalist

Who asks the questions? Who gets the answers?

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A Pandora’s box has been opened on undercover policing following the exposure of Mark Kennedy. But there’s still a lot we don’t know. Rebecca Quinn from No Police Spies investigates.

The past few weeks have been a whirlwind of revelation and scandal in the world of political policing. Not a day has gone by without some new snippet of information about the decade-long infiltration of environmental and left-wing political groups coming into public light. The story of Mark Kennedy’s seven year infiltration of the UK Anti-Climate Change movement has caught the attention of the country; but despite the rapidly building picture of the sheer extent of the undercover operation, the common feature of every news story is the information that we don’t know, and the questions that have not been answered. This saga began with a refusal to disclose the facts.

On 10 January 2011, 20 months after they were initially arrested, six defendants in the Ratcliffe-on-Soar case were told they could walk free by a judge at the Nottingham Crown Court. They had been advised to expect a trial lasting up to one month after they had entered a not-guilty plea, stating that when they were arrested, that had not yet decided whether or not to take part in the shut-down of the UK’s second-largest coal-fired power station. If the courts believed this, they could never have been found guilty of the conspiracy that they were charged with.

But the case never went to trial. In the week leading up to its collapse, the solicitors for the defence had requested a full disclosure from the prosecution of any evidence relating to Mark Kennedy, as it had been revealed in the Sunday Times that he had been involved in the planning of the power-station shutdown at every single stage. As an officer of the law, who had had such intimate knowledge of the events leading up to their arrest, his evidence was vital.

The minutes spent in the court that morning were simply a formality. The defendants had known for several days that they no longer had a case to answer. Soon after receiving the request for full disclosure, the prosecution told the defence that new information which ‘significantly undermines the case’ had come to their attention, and that the Crown Prosecution Service now felt that there was no realistic possibility of conviction. The defence never received their disclosure, as no jury would ever need to hear the evidence it contained. The celebrations that, in some way, justice had been done did not obscure the serious questions that the collapse of the trial had prompted: what was going on? What ‘new’ evidence could have led to such a rapid withdrawal? Why had this happened in seemingly direct response to a request for clarity?

These are just three questions that have not received answers in the past few weeks. As the Pandora’s box of undercover policing targeting British protesters has been opened, the unwillingness of the police to come forward and explain their operational conduct is stark. The relationship between the complex network of official police bodies that deal with ‘domestic extremism’ and the devastating personal impact of their infiltration into the private lives of those they monitor is as murky as ever.

The revelations that have followed the implosion of the Ratcliffe case paint a picture of political policing in this country that has left activists reeling

Nick Herbert, the Home Office Minister, recently made the statement that ‘something had gone very wrong’, in relation to the collapse of the trial and Mark Kennedy’s claim that he had taken recordings of the planning for the shut-down that would have proved the six defendants’ innocence, recordings that were never submitted as evidence by the prosecution before the request for disclosure. This is not an answer to anything. The extent of the ‘something’ and the scale of the ‘wrong’ has not even begun to be tackled by those who need to come forward and demonstrate accountability. The revelations that have followed the implosion of the Ratcliffe case paint a picture of political policing in this country that has left activists reeling. Four officers, who between them spent years embedded in various political networks, have already been outed, but the realization that there is still so much more to find out keeps on growing.

Sexual misconduct

While Labour MP David Winnick is perhaps right to say that it would have been ‘naïve’ to think that some police surveillance of protesters does not happen, the magnitude of these operations is beyond what anyone could have been expected. To find out that numerous individuals under the command of an opaque network of ‘handlers’ have been embedded in intimate working and friendship networks over many years has been overwhelming. It has emerged that these officers have been involved with every aspect of what it is to be a political activist, from the initial idea to take direct action against something, to the organization of a plan, to the action itself, through arrest, and in the celebration of success.

One major issue that has yet to reach any conclusion is the matter of the sexual conduct of some of these officers. All three of the male officers whose identity has been found out through the investigations of activists and the press are known to have developed sexual relationships with women within the groups they infiltrated. These relationships extend in duration from a few months, to years, to a marriage. A point of debate in the public arena has been to what extent these relationships were known about or mandated by the undercover officers’ superiors. On one hand we have heard from Jon Murphy, a spokesperson for the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) that such relationships were not permitted, ‘under any circumstances’.

Undercover officers themselves [say] that such relationships were actively endorsed, and that promiscuity was seen as a valuable tactic to blend into target groups

The implication is that the officers, in this version, had ‘gone rogue’, and that any allocation of responsibility must be laid at the feet of their misconduct. On the other hand, we have heard from undercover officers themselves that such relationships were actively endorsed, and that promiscuity was seen as a valuable tactic to both blend into target groups, and to solicit information from the individuals they were intimate with. This tells a very different story, one of state-sanctioned sexual abuse, and one where informed consent has been discarded as an irrelevant factor in the ‘policing’ of nonviolent political activists. As of yet there is no resolution between these vastly different explanations. Further to this, it is known that far more than four police officers have spent time posing as members of left-wing movements in Britain. Mark Kennedy himself claimed that he knew of at least 15 others, most of whose identities we still do not know.

Only question marks

At 8am on 24 January, 35 people, the majority women, blockaded the entrance to Scotland Yard in London. The police intelligence teams who were photographing them would have recorded a line of individuals holding up placards, some with the faces of the undercover police officers whose identities are now known. The majority of those placards however, displayed only question marks, and illustrated the call of these women to be told the identity of other officers who may have been living among them, and who may be living among them still. The numerous journalists who were drawn to the protest had two questions for the people there: Why are you here, and what do you want?

As I sat there with my placard, I had been expecting different kinds of questions, more along the lines of, ‘Are you here because you slept with one of these men? Are you here because you want to find out if you have?’ It is perhaps true that the sexual scandals that have been all over the papers in the past two weeks have been so widely read because they are particularly attention-grabbing and because sex sells. But what I realized at that protest is that there is a growing demand for a full account of these goings on, and not from the personal experiences of activists, but from the police themselves.

We have heard statements from the police that it is necessary to keep the identities of the other undercover police officers secret for their own protection. It is clear that what they want to protect, however, is the preservation of unaccountability to the public, to those affected both directly and indirectly. The women outside Scotland Yard posed no threat to any individual through their actions. What they were threatening was the reputation of the police through their aim to provide the potentially dozens of people who may have been affected by this with the information they need to take legal recourse against what has happened to them.

The details that we have heard, of potentially suppressed evidence, rogue agents developing Stockholm syndrome, secret headquarters and decadent meetings at expensive restaurants, can only lead to a speculative impression of what has really been going on in the world of political policing in the past 10 years. What we need is for the police to begin disclosing exactly what happened, when and who authorized it.

A swathe of inquiries has been launched into this business in the past few days. The Independent Police Complaints Commission has launched an inquiry into the conduct of the Nottinghamshire constabulary’s alleged suppression of the taped evidence that may or may not have been the reason why the six activists walked free in early January. The Serious and Organized Crime Agency has launched a separate investigation into how Mark Kennedy behaved as an individual police officer during his time undercover. Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of the Constabulary will be assessing whether ACPO’s operations over the past 10 years have been lawful and proportionate. However, all of these are internal inquiries, led by a sprawling mass of acronyms, or the police investigating the police. None of them have provided information about the exact questions they will be asking, or how and when the public will receive the answers to these. This does not address the issue that the scale of political policing has grown to such an extraordinarily destructive size because, up until this point, the police have been accountable to nobody but themselves.

There is a growing demand for a full account of these goings on, and not from the personal experiences of activists, but from the police themselves

Asking the right questions

This week Bob Broadhurst, the Scotland Yard officer in charge of policing the 2008 G20 protests in London, where Ian Tomlinson died, stood before parliament. He was there to answer to the fact that he had previously told the Home Affairs Select Committee that no plain-clothes officers had been present at the G20 protests. This was not true. When asked to explain himself to the chair of the parliamentary committee this Tuesday, he said:

‘There is a review going on into that, sir. I would always have a specialist working with me on intelligence. Normally, they would tell me. It didn’t happen on this occasion; hence I need to find out why that happened. It may well be, as you said, I didn’t ask the right questions. Genuinely, I did not know.’

A campaign has been launched, and an independent, judge-lead inquiry has been called for. One that will tackle the practice of political policing, its aims and its tactics on a broad-scale

This statement is testament to the consistent unwillingness, or even just sheer inability, of the police to ask the right questions of themselves. The response to the recent exposure of undercover police tactics has been for the accountable bodies to close in on themselves, presenting a meagre smattering of internal inquiries and a departmental re-shuffle. This illustrates that a very different kind of action needs to be taken.

A campaign has been launched, and an independent, judge-lead inquiry has been called for – one that would tackle the practice of political policing, its aims and its tactics on a broad scale. This is the only way in which we can hope to obtain the answers we need, and stop the attempt by the police to brush their misdealings under the carpet. The fact that the environmental movement in particular has been subject to such harassment is a travesty. To date, no eco-activist has been convicted of a violent offence during any political action they have taken, and the only result the police can lay claim to after 10 years of being answerable to no-one is a growing sense of embarrassment.

We need to know why it was deemed at all necessary or appropriate in the first place to pour millions of pounds of public money into such a serious and sustained abuse of privacy. While this cannot be undone, the police have an opportunity to prevent any further harm by breaking their silence and submitting to a public inquiry into their actions. This can be a turning point, where we witness a complete overhaul in how social justice movements are subject to policing, and put an end to this utterly unwarranted disproportionality.

Rebecca Quinn is a member of the No Police Spies campaign.

To find out what you can do to get involved in the quest for police accountability please visit No Police Spies.

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