Undercover officers need protection from Greenpeace? You’re joking | Neil Woods

Anonymity for the police is a privilege. I was undercover for years and can see this privilege is being abused in the spycops inquiry

I’m increasingly disturbed by the “spycops” public inquiry into the undercover policing of political protest groups, which is having yet another hearing on Wednesday to decide whether or not individual officers should be identified. The Metropolitan police is dictating the terms of this public inquiry and, even to a former undercover police officer like me, it has begun to look like a whitewash.

In 2015, in the spirit of transparency, police misconduct hearings were made public. This means that any constable accused of wrongdoing now features in local newspapers or the national press. So why isn’t the behaviour of the Special Demonstration Squad and the National Public Order Intelligence Unit – at the centre of this inquiry – being examined with the same transparency?

We are told that there is a risk to safety. From whom, exactly? I was undercover for many years, and the jail time of all the people I put in prison adds up to about a thousand years. During the last hearing, Peter Francis, that spycop turned whistleblower, pointed out that this was greater than the total prison time meted out by the SDS in its 40-year history. Clearly, the SDS was not investigating dangerous people; there’s certainly no evidence to suggest they were dangerous.

My life has genuinely been threatened on many occasions. I’ve put notorious gangsters behind bars who use rape and mutilation to build their reputation. I just can’t work out where the comparable danger is from London Greenpeace, or anti-war groups. If the spycops had infiltrated paramilitary groups or terrorist organisations, then of course I would concede a risk, but it is clear that this is not what we are talking about here. I now use my real name. I’ve published a memoir. People know that I live in Hereford. I gave up my anonymity because it was the right thing to do. Surely I’m in more danger than the officers at the centre of this inquiry?

I have a particular interest – not just because of my history in the police, but also because I could have been one of those NPOIU officers. Mine was a different type of undercover work: my brief was to catch drug dealers, and by the late 1990s I’d had some years of success. I was approached to participate in political work: specifically, to infiltrate animal rights groups such as the Animal Liberation Front. I wasn’t interested, as at the time I was wholly invested in catching gangsters. I wanted to make the streets safer and thought that my work did that. So I asked my recruiter, where’s the bad guy? Why would I spend months, or even years, infiltrating a group of people who want to rescue beagles?

‘Spycop turned whistleblower’ … Peter Francis.
‘Spycop turned whistleblower’ … Peter Francis. Photograph: Graham Turner/The Guardian

I was approached again a few weeks later with a more earnest recruitment pitch. My nation needed me, I was told. If the group of businesses that relied on animal testing left the UK, then we could lose 5% of GDP overnight. This would apparently lead to a catastrophic recession. I was stunned by this “revelation”, but also dubious of the economics and a little offended that someone thought that this would persuade me. But, most of all, I was disturbed by the idea that police were being directed by political motivations. Or more to the point, that police were being used to protect a specific sector of business and the investments of shareholders.

This aspect of long-term political spying demands examination and transparency. What is our democracy if the police are tools of politics and business? Multiple officers have – it is incontestable – used and abused women at the behest of the state, and there are no doubt more of whom we haven’t heard. And for what? As the Metropolitan police has revealed its position I’ve become increasingly shocked at the farcical claims and downright dishonesty.

We are told that the anonymity of those spycops is essential to protect their privacy and their safety. The Met claims that these covert police were promised that their real identities would always be protected. It is a dark, uncomfortable irony that these officers cite article 8 of the Human Rights Act – about the right to privacy and family life – to avoid examination for systematically eroding this right for others.

The notion that these detectives were promised permanent secrecy is ludicrous anyway – I was taught from the start of my undercover deployments that anonymity is a privilege. We always remain police officers, and accountable for our actions. The work I did was genuinely dangerous. I caught some of the most vicious gangsters in the UK, but I went into every operation knowing that if I behaved improperly the cost could be the loss of my pseudonym.

It could not be more obvious that allowing transparency into these proceedings is the right thing to do. Those who have done wrong should answer for it. The abuse that has so far been revealed is shocking. The inquiry should be taking an investigatory stance to uncover every similar instance. I am appalled that yet again we have the establishment protecting itself at the expense of justice.

• Neil Woods was an undercover police officer, and is the author of Good Cop, Bad War


Neil Woods

The GuardianTramp

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