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  1. Politics
2 February 2016

The true betrayal at the heart of the Met’s undercover police scandal

When officers lie to women to infiltrate peaceful protest groups, it shows the abusive relationship between citizen and state.

By Laurie Penny

In 2010, Kate Wilson received a phonecall. It was a friend, telling her that her ex-boyfriend Mark was not all he seemed. In fact, he had never existed. The man Kate knew as Mark Stone, as a friend she had loved, slept with and lived with for two years, was in fact an undercover police officer called Mark Kennedy, sent by the state to spy on the environmental campaigns of which Kate was a member. Everything he had told her was a lie. And as the story unfolded, it became clear that Wilson was far from the only woman to have been deceived into a relationship with a member of the British police.

Since 1968, an unknown number of police officers systematically infiltrated political organisations in Britain and Northern Ireland, under the auspices of two now-disbanded units of the Met. They used the identities of dead children to maintain their cover. Many, like Kennedy, formed relationships with women activists, and at least two of them fathered children. These cases are finally coming to light, as more and more undercover officers are exposed, and a public inquiry is underway into how much the government knew about these activities. 

But the women affected want more than an apology. They want answers. They want to know who authorised these relationships, and they want a list of aliases published – so that anyone who has been in a relationship with an undercover officer can finally know the truth. The public, too, deserves answers. If we have a police force that can deliberately spend decades putting officers in the field to spy on peaceful civilians, manipulating and abusing women and undermining legitimate protest, what does it say about the relationship between citizen and state?

The Pitchford inquiry is investigating how much the government and the Metropolitan police knew about these undercover units, which were run independently and renamed several times. The more pertinent question, however, is – why was this permitted at all?  It was permitted, in part because successive governments saw non-violent protest as a threat to public order. (“What we are seeing globally is the rise of dangerous new authoritarian secret states, whose architecture of oppression is aimed at suppressing social change,” Harry Halpin, an MIT research scientist who was placed under surveillance by Mark Kennedy as a student activist, told me. “The British intelligence services are key in this global network of digital mass surveillance.”) The Special Demonstration Squad, which deployed many of these officers, was established as a direct response to the anti-war protests of the 1960s. 

Since then, undercover units have been also been assigned, at considerable expense, to gather intelligence on campaigns against police violence. In 2013, it was revealed that undercover officers monitored activists in the case of Jean Charles De Menezes, the Brazilian plumber shot by police in 2005. The Pitchford Inquiry itself was launched after it emerged that officers had spied on the family of Stephen Lawrence during the investigation into police racism following his murder. Even now, the inquiry is not allowing activists like the Undercover Research Group, which has been instrumental in exposing police infiltrators, to be involved in the hearings as core participants. As more cases are revealed, the story looks looks less like the police using covert methods to protect the public from extremism and more like Scotland Yard using ugly tactics to protect its own back and quash political protest. “It is now clear that wrongdoing goes far beyond the individual undercover officers,” Kate Wilson told the BBC. “Yet we are denied access to any information about the extent of the intrusion into our lives, who knew and how far up the hierarchy it went. The only way there can be real justice is if the inquiry releases the cover names and opens the files.”

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Last week, Wilson became the first of many campaigners deceived into relationships with police officers to formally win her civil case against Scotland Yard. In November 2015, the Metropolitan police settled out of court and apologised to seven more women, describing the relationships as a “gross violation of personal dignity and integrity”. Wilson and others describe their experiences as “state-sponsored abuse”, and it’s easy to see why. If a person you sleep with is not just lying about about his identity and intentions but actively working to harm you and your loved ones, it’s hard to see how you could give informed consent. 

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Of course, the Metropolitan police has no monopoly on scumbags telling lies to women they want to have sex with. Plenty of people tell lies to their partners: big lies, little lies, lies that run from the to the quotidian to the criminal, from “I’ll respect you in the morning” to “it’s just a rash”. The fact that many of us consider this sort of deception normal, even inevitable, is a separate question about how we have become used to treating one another in this culture. There’s a different class of deception involved, though, when what you have neglected to tell your girlfriend is that you are in fact an undercover police officer fully intent on betraying them and everyone they know. There’s a different scale of betrayal in play when an entire unit of public servants is secretly supervising your relationship. The precise words, according to Scotland Yard itself, are “abusive, deceitful, manipulative and wrong”.

This is not just about a few sleazy guys tricking a few idealists into bed. This is about far more than sex. This is a secret police unit using enormous amounts of public money to create fake people, with fake passports, bank accounts and driving licenses, and using them to deceive women not just into sex, but into long-term romantic relationships. They moved into their homes, became involved with their families, proposed marriage, and had children with them, before disappearing forever.

The narratives of these extraordinary stories are similar enough to raise eyebrows. The officers would manipulate their partners, lie about family tragedies to create intimacy, and fake emotional breakdowns and suicide attempts before vanishing. The Metropolitan police continues to deny that it officially encouraged or sanctioned these relationships, but regardless, a sexual relationship is a great way to build trust within a community – and maintain your cover. 

The involvement of the state makes all the difference. It adds a political element to a profound personal betrayal. It was as agents of the state that members of these now-disbanded police units betrayed and deceived women, and in that capacity, the public, too, deserves answers. Because this is not just about the abusive relationship between men and their unwitting partners. It is about the abusive relationship between citizen and state, and that’s something that affects every one of us.

The moral of this sordid forty-year story of British policing is that the consent of the governed – the entire basis of the rule of law – is also obtained by deceit. It’s a deceit that is just as brutal as force, and infinitely more insidious. Just like any abusive partner, our governments and police forces lie to us about their intentions, about our agency, about who really has the power. They lie to protect their own interests and obtain our trust. They collect our data and record our movements without our consent, and lavish public money on operations designed not to prevent violence but to crush dissent of any kind. And whatever your personal opinion of the police, the fact that they have used the names of dead children and abused the trust of women to do so should make this story a national outrage.

The women who were betrayed and exploited by police officers are the first victims of this outrage – but everyone with a stake in civil society has a right to answers. Until we know how the police are operating, until we know who is watching us and why, the public cannot give informed consent to be governed – and that’s a violation of everyone’s dignity.