1,200 undercover police officers operating across England and Wales

There are more than 1,200 undercover police officers operating in 39 units across England and Wales the police watchdog has revealed for the first time, as it issued a damning criticism of senior officers responsible for the tactic.

The inspectors said that the “generally poor knowledge and lack of expertise of senior officers” was unacceptable and called for a root-and-branch reform of the secretive national group that oversees the deployment of undercover officers.

Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) warned that the shortcomings of the senior officers threatened to undermine a technique that it said was a valuable way of catching criminals.

They also found that five police forces had failed to adapt to “the fast growing online threat” from criminals and were not conducting any undercover investigations on the internet.

The watchdog broke new ground by disclosing the breadth of modern undercover work, revealing that there were 3,466 undercover operations in England and Wales between October 2009 and September 2013 and that at the most recent count, 1,229 officers in 39 units are trained as undercover officers.

Inspectors refused to detail individual operations, but said the undercover officers had been targeted at small-time criminals selling drugs or stolen goods on the street through to paedophiles and terrorists.

The watchdog has refused to say how many undercover officers are being used to infiltrate political groups.

The HMIC report into the current control of undercover officers was commissioned by the home secretary, Theresa May, following revelations in the Guardian that undercover officers had spied on the family of murdered teenager, Stephen Lawrence.

Stephen Otter, the HMIC inspector who led the evaluation of the covert operations, acknowledged that a series of disclosures – including how undercover officers had formed sexual relationships with women they were spying on and gave evidence in court using their fake identities – had caused “a growing unease that the tactic is being wrongly used, badly supervised, and ineffectively controlled”.

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