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Undercover police and the erosion of trust

The last few months have been a public relations nightmare for Manchester and Metropolitan police forces as details have come to light of the vast invasions of decency that their undercover operatives have been a party to. It's hard exactly to pinpoint exactly what the lowest point of the entire saga is.

Perhaps you might decide that it was that undercover police officers infiltrated the family of murdered teen Stephen Lawrence. Lawrence was murdered in a racially motivated attack 20 years ago while waiting for a bus. He was attacked by a group of white teens who, without provocation attacked him and a friend, stabbing him twice. He bled to death before reaching the hospital. It would take 17 years before anyone would be convicted for his murder.

An inquest into the case reported in 1997 that the original Metropolitan police investigation had been bungled, with key suspects being allowed to walk free, a failure to follow obvious leads and a failure to provide first aid at the scene of the crime. The report would repeat a phrase from the earlier Scarman Report(1981) that would haunt the Metropolitan police: "Institutionally racist". Not only had specific low-level officers failed in their duties, but management all the way to the top were indicted for their prejudiced beliefs and practices.

That allegation, 'institutionally racist' has risen again in the last few months. It was revealed by a whistle-blower that an undercover operative had been implanted close to the family during their campaign for justice over the death of their son. The intention seems to have been to dig up dirt on the Lawrence family for use in possible smear campaign. Peter Francis, the officer involved in the operation, described a top-down pressure to find something that could be used to undermine the campaign. He also talked about being told to look for information that could be used to discredit the main witness to the murder. The implication seems to be that Stephen Lawrence must have done something to deserve the attack, because he is black.

This alone would be damaging enough for the integrity of the Metropolitan Police. However further information has since come to public attention, along with another ugly tag: 'Institutional Sexism'. Five women, all members of Anti-Capitalism and Environmental groups, have accused the Metropolitan police of using undercover officers to spy on them intimately. They claim that these undercover officers fraudulently and willingly misled them as to who they were, fooled them into relationships and engaged with sexual acts. The sheer extent of the deception is beyond belief. One victim, Helen Steel (of the McLibel Case), had a year long intimate relationship with one of the officers before he disappeared. Helen believed that he had committed suicide, instead he had just been redeployed to another undercover operation. In a final indignity, she would discover while searching death records that the name the undercover police officer had used was actually that of a child who had died aged 8 of leukemia. Helen Steel's only 'crime' seems to have been an involvement in anti-Capitalist groups.


(Helen Steel and 'John Baker' - In reality a police spy)

What seems clear is that the UK police forces were engaged in serious and significant breaches of their public duty. The cases highlight the past depths to which the Metropolitan police has sunk as well as making a clear mockery of the Metropolitan police's current commitments to preventing racism and sexism in the forces. The fact that these deeds not only occurred, but that the Metropolitan police's response seems (once again) to be to try and kill the inquests shows that they are still falling the British public. The statement that it would "[i]t would "maintain the principle of neither confirm nor deny" to protect the officers' identities" especially jars in the context of a case involving the compromise of privacy and possible sexual assault of several women.

The storm surrounding the Metropolitan and Manchester police forces seems only to continue, with further allegations that undercover police watched as serious crimes were committed coming to light, and an inquest ordered by the Home Secretary. Further discoveries that are liable to damage the reputation of both forces are almost guaranteed. But what is certain is that the police cannot be allowed to continue to operate in the dark. The details of their crimes must be brought to light and officers should face criminal charges. Then and only then might the police begin to regain the trust of the British public. At the moment they aren't worthy of it.

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