Watching the Detectives

The Monitoring Group is often been approached to support people who report police misconduct. Recently, we were approached by a young Jamaican women from North London who had been beaten by a police officer in Great Ormond Street Hospital. Her daughter had been sick since she was a newborn, and she had fought hard ever since to keep her alive. A planned short stay at the hospital turned into a six week ordeal. At one point she had to plead with doctors not to switch off the life support machine. One day she refused to leave her daughter when the Consultant asked her, and the police were called.

When the police came, they grabbed her and as she struggled one officer punched her, when she fell he continued to assault her. Our client needed plastic surgery following the incident and has been off work for more than a year recovering from her injuries.

The Police officer was taken off duty, and charged with actual bodily harm. Last week the Guardian reported from the court and noted, ‘Security staff at the hospital who witnessed the incident told the court they were appalled by it. Two police constables who also attended the incident gave evidence for the prosecution. Laura Riley, one of the officers, wept as she described the scene, and the officer Mary Clark described the incident as “just horrific”.’ (Guardian 22nd January 2015) Yet, a jury of ordinary men and women found him not guilty.

There is an increasing trend of juries absolving police officers of acts, which at first seem obviously mistaken or at worst criminal, both here and in the USA. There are a number of reasons for this; the poor effort shown by prosecutions team, the manner in which the law is weighed in favour of the police officer, and the way juries are asked to think like a police officer.

This involves firstly, presenting the case with negative racial stereotypes of the victim. Research shows that we are bombarded every day with racial stereotypes, and their residuals are deposited deep into our minds, and within the clinical courtroom environment they are often presented as a reasonable defence. Secondly, it involves shifting the status of victim from the black mother, who was actually beaten up, to the police officer who suddenly becomes the person requiring sympathy.

This strategy first developed by the former Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Robert Mark who coined the phrase ‘winning by loosing’. He once admitted in an interview ‘the real art of policing a free society or democracy is to win by appearing to lose; or at least, to win by not appearing to win’. (quoted in Mawby, Polcing Images). However, we weren’t always so gullible.

In the past, the English were suspicious of the Police, and especially the spy. There are many stories where the figure of the spy was evoked to epitomize the threat to freeborn Englishmen. The historian EP Thompson noted ‘the peculiar jealously of the British people towards the central powers of the state, their abhorrence of military intervention in civil affairs, their dislike of state espionage and of any form of heaving policing’. (Thompon, 1980:204)

This fear was held not just by ordinary people, but even amongst the ruling classes. In Parliament, the Report from the Select Committee on the Police of the Metropolis (1822) reported ‘It is difficult to reconcile an effective system of police, with that perfect freedom of action and exemption from interference, which are the great privileges and blessings of society in this country. In the committee’s view ‘the forfeiture or curtailment of such advantages would be too great a sacrifice for improvements in police, or facilities in detection of crime, however desirable in themselves if abstractedly considered

As a result, there was no unified police force in the UK until 1829, when Sir Robert Peel established the Metropolitan Police Force based at Scotland Yard. Sir Robert Peel was a Conservative MP with a long history in Ireland, and had in 1821, previously established the Royal Irish Constabulary. The Constabulary in Ireland was a quasi-military colonial constabulary governed by discipline, and fear of insurrection. He was well aware that the approach on the mainland would need to be different and “given that the Metropolitan Police, unlike other police forces in the country, operated under the direct authority of the home office, its employees were seen as agents of the state, hence their image was relevant to the stability of the established order as a whole.” (Haia Shpayer-Makov, 2009) Hence they were not armed, did not wear military uniforms, were recruited from the local community, and served under the mantra “the police are the public and the public are the police.”

However, this was partly just a public relations exercise, as in reality the ‘bobbies’, walked the street in uniforms, whilst the detectives walked amongst people in plain clothes, very much as spies. This system became part of fabric in Britain. In the beginning everyone distrusted the plains clothes officers. Such was the public concern in the early days that the Police Orders issued to officers stated, ‘The Police are remined of the great importance of not using any irritating language or expressions.. the more good temper and coolness by the Police whenever they called upon to act, the more readily will all the well disposed assist them in preserving the public peace” (Metropolitan Police Order, 11th October 1829 p109)

Rob Mawby, in his book, ‘Policing Images’, describes how the police image was changed with the establishment of the Scotland Yard Press Bureau in 1919. By controlling the Police relationship with the growing popular press they managed to improve the image of the plain-clothes detective, and in time his image underwent a metamorphosis, from a conduit of deplorable foreign norms and practices into a crime fighter with an international standing, even a source of national pride. There were odd moments of relapse though. For example, during a interview with Desmond Wilcox on the program Top Cop (12 July 1977), the same Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Robert Mark, admitted that it was sometimes necessary to mask intentions with words. He confirmed that his comments denying any connection between Met. corruption and pornography in the 1973 Dimbleby Lecture has been one such occasion (Chibnall 1979:147, Reiner, 1992:178)

The history of British policing is scattered with a catalogue of mistakes, ongoing corruption, and cover-ups. A report published by Her Inspectorate of Constabulary last week reported, “When corruption is uncovered there is a tendency within organisations, including the police service, to suggest or imply that the problem is one that is confined to a few rogue members or ‘bad apples’. This canard can be dealt with quickly. First, whilst it is perfectly possible, on occasion, for an individual, or a small number of individuals, to engage in highly unethical conduct, the history of policing has too many examples of institutionalised corruption for this ‘explanation’ to carry much credence”. (HMIC 2015, p7)

This is quite a definite statement from the HMIC, though we shouldn’t be too surprised as even the Home Secretary recently spoke to the Police Federation conference outlining a litany of recent mistakes. These include;

  • The Leveson Inquiry
  • The death of Ian Tomlinson
  • The sacking of PC Harwood
  • The ongoing inquiry by an independent panel into the murder of Daniel Morgan
  • The first sacking of a chief constable for gross misconduct in modern times
  • The investigation of more than ten senior officers for acts of alleged misconduct and corruption
  • Allegations of rigged recorded crime statistics
  • The sacking of PCs Keith Wallis, James Glanville and Gillian Weatherley after “Plebgate”
  • Worrying reports by the inspectorate about stop and search and domestic violence
  • The Herne Review into the conduct of the Metropolitan Police Special Demonstration Squad
  • The Ellison Review into allegations of corruption during the investigation of the murder of Stephen Lawrence.

Her comments to the Federation are worth noting, ‘if there is anybody who underestimates the damage recent events and revelations have done to the relationship between the public and the police, if anybody here questions the need for the police to change, I am here to tell you that its time to face up to reality.’ (Home Office 21st May 2014)

Later this week the Monitoring Group, the Centre for Crime and Justice and Imran Khan and Partners are holding a conference to discuss the implications of these recent trends, which are important not only for police trust and accountability, but go to the very foundation of democracy in UK.

Some of the issues, which affect our communities, are;

(1) The conduct of Special Demonstration Squad

The Special Demonstration Squad was established by Special Branch as the Special Operations Squad in March 1968. It was formed as a response to the anti-war demonstrations held outside the US Embassy in Grosvenor Square, London, and operated until 2008. Over the forty year of its operation it targeted investigations on a wide range of ‘protest groups’. There are a whole range of issues which arise from their operation of the SDS (legality, authority and accountability, use of dead children’s names, relationships and children born whilst undercover)

One of the issues, which arise from the work of SDS officers, is the actual involvement of SDS officers in the planning and carrying out of criminal acts. Last week the Guardian reported that so far more than 50 campaigners have already had their convictions overturned. (The cases involved undercover officers Mark Kennedy and Jim Boyling) More worrying, the Guardian reports that Mark Ellison has suggested that the undercover police knew that evidence advanced by prosecutors against campaigners was false but did nothing, hid vital evidence, and could have encouraged others to commit crimes. (Guardian 20th January 2015) The Ellison Review is only focussing on the Special Demonstration Squad and the National Public Order Intelligence Unit (NPOIU), though it could be broadened out to scrutinise other covert work.

(2) Intelligence led police investigations and the ‘culture of secrecy’

The conduct of Special Demonstration Squad officers highlights the dangers of giving blanket consent to police investigations which rely upon a `preventative paradigm’, that is investigations which are argued are necessarily not because something has occurred, but to pre-empt criminal acts and stop them from occurring. This constitutes a fundamental shift in strategy and focus from traditional law enforcement techniques and criminal law that is reactive in nature. Although this is not a new investigative technique, as intelligence and intelligence-led policing were central to the British government’s counter terrorism strategies in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, however what we are learning is that the scale of intelligence investigations was extremely far reaching, and certainly not focused on issues of terror.

For example, we know SDS officers choose to infiltrate pro-cycling groups. We also know that the phone operator Vodafone has handed over the mobile phone records of more than 1,700 News UK staff, including many journalists, to the Metropolitan Police. Any attempt to find out more about surveillance operations is hindered. Only last week the Met Police, ’Britain’s biggest force put a ban on Press Gazette using freedom of information requests to discover details about its use of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa).’ (Guardian 3rd February 2015)

(3) The emergence of a `jurisprudence of secrecy’

This culture of secrecy is not just confined to the changing nature of police investigations, but is used across the whole criminal justice system. This was highlighted by comments made in the wake of the Hillsborough Independent Panel’s revelations about police cover-up and doctoring of evidence, including Lord Macdonald’s observation that the Panel’s findings illustrate the ‘absolutely suffocating” culture of secrecy in British public life’. (A. Sparrow, `Politics Live with Andrew Sparrow’ Guardian, 13 September 2012 at <>) Increasingly we are seeing national security being used in legal proceedings to keep certain information secret.

For example, it is has been widely used in cases where there has been contentious death involving police in covert operations. Azelle Rodney was shot by police officers on 30th April 2005. The family then had to spend over 8 years campaigning and fighting legal battles to eventually be allowed to hold an Inquiry into his death. The eventual Inquiry report was highly critical of police, concluding that firing shots so as to kill was `disproportionate and therefore unreasonable and unlawful’. Along with that unequivocal finding, the inquiry threw into sharp relief the work of other agencies involved in police-related death investigations, such as the IPCC and CPS, which had found the police had no case to answer for Azelle Rodney’s death. (Martin and Bray 2013) We see similar trends in a number of other deaths, including Mark Duggan.

(4) The inability of a robust legal framework to ensure accountability

One of the most glaring issues is the failure of existing legislation and safety checks to actually work. The policing manual is clear and states, ‘investigators are required to use the least intrusive means of investigations that will achieve their means’. (Blackstone’s Covert Policing) Although the RIPA regulation is often citied as a safety check, it is not. ‘RIPA is not a law that manages covert actions ; it is a law that renders lawful and compliant covert actions in circumstances where Acticle 8 ECHR rights are engaged’ (Blackstone’s Covert Policing p10) The reasons where this can happen is also very vague, with reasons to justify intrusion including  ‘national security, public safety, protection of health and morals, interest of economic well-being’.  The system was designed to allow Chief Constable to conduct investigations, and therefore regulation of the system lay within the Police service itself. One safety check in the system was that only chief Constables are allowed to provide authority for covert surveillance, yet not one senior person in authority has taken responsibility for the operation of SDS officers.

(5) The seepage of surveillance into other areas

These trends are also occurring at a time when policies initially designed to combat terrorism are creeping into other areas of everyday life. The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA) extended the powers of `public bodies’ in respect of interception of communications.

Moreover, despite government claims that RIPA was a necessary tool for police forces and the security services to combat terrorism and organized crime, `it is now deployed by local authorities for investigation of benefit fraud, licensing and environmental health issues‘. (S. Hallsworth and J. Lea, 2011 p152)

More worrying, we can see from the Mark Kennedy case, that undercover officers can easily move from working for a Police Force, to the private sector to avoid scrutiny. None of the current reviews have been asked to examine the work of the private sector firms operating to undertake surveillance. Adam Curtis recently wrote about such a company called Active Investigation Services – AIS, run by a serving detective called Jeremy Young. Curtis writes, Young, ‘was still a serving Met officer who was leading a double life. He managed to do this by constantly going sick – claiming stress and anxiety, and back pain. Over 5 years Young took 1,640 days off on sick leave. There are 1.826 days in 5 years’.. (Curtis, BBC Blog 5th December 2013)

We obviously need change. In 2009, when the government was seeking to introduce greater secrecy into inquests, and remove juries from contentious cases, Graham Foulkes, whose son, David, died in the 7 July 2005 London bombings, criticized the government’s push for secrecy. Awaiting the inquest into David’s death, he stated the secrecy proposals were incommensurable with the qualities of democracy and the principles of independent, open, and transparent death investigation, adding the proposed reform was `a bad law’, and urging, `please do not discolour democracy with it’.(Inquest, Liberty, Justice 2009 p9)

The conference this weekend takes as its starting point that there is a profound crisis in policing across the UK that requires us to share information and experiences, develop ideas and create new partnerships that will spur a momentum for genuine state accountability. This is an important discussion for everyone living in our communities, because it not a discussion about surveillance or racism, but about the kind of law and order society we want to live in. In ‘Policing the Crisis’, Stuart Hall and others showed how the racist narrative in the 1970s was simply being used to stir up feat to enact even greater authoritarian legislation. In an age where words such as extremist, terrorists, and national security are used to freely, we need to ask ourselves what safeguards should we as ordinary citizens been demanding now. As the Home Secretary herself said, ‘we need to face up to reality’.

Corruption, Spying, Racism and Accountability: UK Policing in the 21st Century

National Conference: London 6 and 7 February 2015


Download the full program here : Full program (pdf) This conference is co-organised by The Monitoring Group, the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, Imran Khan & Partners and Tottenham Rights and is part of series of events titled The State of the Nation – Racism & justice in the UK coordinated by The Monitoring Group, for further information please contact


To register please go to the Centre for Crime and Justice studies HERE




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