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10 January 2022

Why I blew the whistle on the UK’s policing of protest

Ministers have promised a crackdown on protesters such as the Colston Four – starting with their new policing bill. Here’s why I took a stand against my former employers.

By Alice O'Keeffe

Sometimes disparate strands of your life come together in a way that feels less like coincidence, and more like fate. Was it mere chance that, having just finished writing a novel about protest policing, I was offered a job editing a landmark report into protest policing?

I had spent four years writing Skylark, a novel inspired by the story of the “spy cops” – undercover police officers who had long relationships with activists. For endless hours, I had imagined myself into the experience of an anti-roads campaigner, whose partner in life is a police spy. Writing the book had been emotionally and financially draining, and I needed some work that would pay the bills without requiring me to think, or feel, much at all.

“I’m heading an inspection into protest policing, and I’d like you on the team. Are you interested?”

Jamie* called one day while I was at the park with my kids. He was a colleague from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary, where I had worked as an associate editor for several years. The job suited me, as it fitted around my other writing. Usually the reports I edited were assessments of police forces; occasionally they were on more diverse themes, such as mental health. The Inspectorate’s job – much as Ofsted does for schools, or the Care Quality Commission for healthcare – is to hold the police to account, acting in the public interest. So although my work there could be repetitive, it felt useful, sometimes important (unlike writing a novel, which is never repetitive but often feels self-indulgent).

The thing I liked most was that the majority of my colleagues were former officers. Day to day, my social bubble includes parents from school, a few writers, and people I know from journalism and publishing. I found working with cops refreshing. I liked their practical, no-nonsense approach; I liked the fact they were not like any of my friends. I was fascinated by the way they talked, and wrote, using so many acronyms it was almost a foreign language. I enjoyed translating what they had written into something civilians could make sense of.

Of all the former cops I worked with, I got on best with Jamie. He had spent most of his career working in anti-terrorism. He was intelligent and analytical, and a much better writer than most other inspectors. He often asked me to edit the reports he worked on, and remarked admiringly on the fact that I was a published novelist. I think he liked getting out of his bubble too.

“This is a major piece of work, commissioned by the Home Secretary in response to the Extinction Rebellion and Black Lives Matter protests of the last couple of years. I’d like you involved from the beginning,” he told me on that first call. “Sit in on the meetings, be part of the discussions. So that by the time you do the edit, you know the subject inside out. It will take up a lot of your time for the next few months. Are you interested?”

The answer, of course, was that I was fascinated. Protest policing was by now pretty much my specialist subject, and here was a chance to find out how it worked from the inside. But as someone who empathised keenly with activists, and who had attended protests, I was wary of how I would fit in.

“You should know that I am very concerned about the environment, and have sympathy with the causes you mentioned,” I told Jamie. “Will that be a problem?”

“No, that’s good,” he replied. “We need a diversity of views.”

[Also watch: Protest and power: is Priti Patel’s police bill a threat to civil liberties?]

I began work on the inspection in November 2020. The team met on Zoom once a week, on a Friday. I had recently – perhaps as a result of all that time spent imagining myself into the mind of a 1990s anti-roads activist – had my hair cut: long on the top, but shaved up one side. It was a strong, anti-authority undercut. Towards the end of the first Zoom meeting with the inspection team, all of whom were from policing backgrounds, I realised that I had been unconsciously turning my head, so that the camera would not show the shaved side. What was I trying to hide?

Without articulating it to myself, my instinct had been that my colleagues would not trust me. (The fear was not unjustified: one of the team later told me that they had subsequently looked me up online to “see what we were up against”.) But in trying to hide the haircut, was I – in some small but nevertheless significant way – playing my own game? For this job, I needed to fit the role of “professional editor” and “impartial civil servant”; the haircut didn’t fit. Should I wear a hat?

An unsettling thought struck me: these were the kind of judgments undercover officers must have made. My research for Skylark meant I knew how these spies had deployed the subtle ways in which people signal allegiance to a group. They would change their clothes, their hair (officers from the undercover protest policing unit, the Special Demonstration Squad, were known as “the hairies”). They would construct an elaborate “legend” – not just a life story but also “duff” tastes in music, books and even interior decor. These small signals had to be just right for their undercover identity to be coherent.

What I found fascinating was that, as a result, so many of them became truly, deeply confused. For a significant number of officers, their fictional identities became more compelling than their real ones. When his cover was blown, the undercover officer Mark Kennedy gave an interview to the Daily Mail in which he appeared to have morphed almost overnight from a pierced, long-haired eco-activist into a policeman, with a short back and sides and neat polo shirt. But in another interview a few months later, he had half lapsed into his “duff” identity, putting his earring back in, and growing his hair mid-length. He was neither activist nor police, but marooned between the two.

This was why I wondered about hiding my hair. Working on the inspection didn’t involve lying or deception. But questions of identity, of loyalty, and of what exactly I was doing on this project, would continue to dog me for the next five months, increasing in intensity as the nature of the inspection, and my role in it, became clear.

The stakes were high. The Home Secretary, Priti Patel, had commissioned the inspection shortly after activists from Extinction Rebellion barricaded the News International printworks in Broxbourne, Hertfordshire. The action had been highly controversial, as it prevented the distribution of newspapers the next day, and politicians from across the spectrum had denounced it as anti-democratic.

[See also: Peaceful protest is under threat from the new UK Policing Bill]

Shortly after the Broxbourne action, Patel started work on a new bill (currently going through the Lords as the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill), which would herald a dramatic shift in the way protests are dealt with. For decades, British police have relied on information from undercover officers; with those tactics now discredited, they needed a new strategy. The bill would give the police additional powers, such as imposing conditions on protests, and searching people for “lock-on” equipment. More broadly, it would send a strong signal about a less tolerant approach. For many years, the British police have been under an obligation to “facilitate” peaceful protest. But as non-violent direct action groups, particularly Extinction Rebellion and now Insulate Britain, cause serious disruption to business-as-usual, “facilitate” – as I was told by my colleagues at the Inspectorate – “has become an F-word”. Last week, in response to the not-guilty verdicts for four Black Lives Matter protesters who tore down Bristol’s Edward Colston memorial in June 2020, the Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said that the bill will close a “potential loophole” limiting the prosecution of people who damage memorials.

Patel’s first step was to consult with the Metropolitan Police about whether it needed additional powers. The force had submitted a list of proposals, of which only five – enhanced stop and search; the power to impose conditions on static assemblies; making it harder for protesters to argue that they didn’t know about these conditions; widening the circumstances in which conditions can be imposed; and making public nuisance a statutory offence – had made it through to the final cut for consideration.

Now, Patel wanted the Inspectorate’s team to assess whether the police were using the powers they already had well enough, and to examine the five proposed changes. The findings of the inspection would help guide the Home Secretary as to what should be included in the bill; the report would also provide evidence to support the bill as it made its way through parliament.

Jamie told me soon after I accepted the job – and before the team had fully gathered or assessed the evidence – that the Inspectorate would support all five legislative changes. To explain this, he recounted a story that he attributed to a senior leader at the Inspectorate, a man with a military background. “If you are at war, and the government sends a message asking if you need more helicopters, you don’t take your time to ponder the pros and cons. You say yes please.”

If this seemed an inappropriate comparison, what could I do? As an editor, was it my role to point out that the Inspectorate was not the military – it was a regulator, acting in the public interest? Or that this was not a war – the protesters were the British public? Throughout my time on the inspection, I walked an uneasy tightrope, pushing back just enough, but not so much that I alienated the rest of the team or got myself dismissed. Any report is a collaboration, and as an editor it was not my place to advise on policy.

But I did try to argue for impartiality. When Jamie criticised Extinction Rebellion, I made the point that we all needed to keep our personal biases in check. He replied by comparing the non-violent direct action group to the IRA, and asking me whether “it would be acceptable to show bias” against IRA bombers. During another conversation, I asked Jamie whether he was concerned about climate change, or had any sympathy with the protesters’ cause. He replied that he wasn’t concerned, as “it’s either too late, or we’ll solve it using technology”.

For a while, I persuaded myself that conversations like these were anthropologically interesting, and that I was challenging myself by engaging with people who didn’t see the world in the same way. I believed – and still believe – that this is an important, and worthwhile, thing to do. But the effort of staying on the tightrope took its toll. As the months passed I became increasingly jaded, and not just because I was homeschooling two children. The ethical questions piled up, questions such as: why are serving Metropolitan Police officers sitting in our briefings when this is supposed to be an independent assessment? Why is there no specialist on race, and only one person of an ethnic minority, on a report that concerns the policing of Black Lives Matter (and only two women on a team of 12)? Why have we focused on environmental and racial justice groups, and never even mentioned the far right?

I did what I could to address these concerns in our discussions and told myself that I wasn’t responsible for the end result. It was lockdown, the economy was at a standstill, I had no other work. Besides, wasn’t this supposed to be my money job, the one I didn’t have to feel anything about?

The report was published on 11 March 2021, with lines like the “balance [in policing] may tip too readily in favour of protesters” (not, I hasten to add, my choice of either sentiment or phrase). The report advocated a tougher approach. More helicopters? Yes please! I shut my eyes and turned off the news.

But I couldn’t turn away the following Saturday night, when the vigil for Sarah Everard took place in south London. As I saw the footage of women being dragged from a peaceful vigil – in memory of a woman murdered by a serving police officer – I knew that I had helped to write the words that laid the groundwork for what happened that night. That by saying the police had been too soft on protesters, our report had given a green light to the Met.

[See also: The crackdown on the Clapham vigil shows why the policing bill is so dangerous]

My name wasn’t on the report, so nobody else would know. But I knew. The following day, the same leadership team was appointed to investigate the Met’s behaviour at the Sarah Everard vigil (two weeks later, they delivered a complete exoneration). They asked me to edit that report, too, but changed their minds when I raised concerns about our previous report, saying they needed an editor who was more “open-minded”.

I spent much of the following week setting out these concerns in a long letter to the head of the inspectorate. Blowing the whistle was extremely stressful. I had no idea what consequences I would face, either personally or professionally. After part of my letter was published in the Guardian, I shut down my social media accounts and did a lot of deep breathing. The inspectorate told me that my concerns were being investigated. They later wrote to say that they had found nothing that would call into question the validity of the inspection.

But there was something liberating about writing that letter. I was, for the first time in months, being fully myself: I didn’t have to hide my hair, or my values. One thing I had learned from writing my book was how damaging the psychological impact of parking your integrity can be. Perhaps it was a coincidence that immediately after writing it I found my own integrity so sorely tested. But somehow, it doesn’t feel like one. Before Christmas, Priti Patel added new amendments to the policing bill as it approaches its third reading in the Lords, making it even more repressive. There has been an angry response from the government to the clearing of the Colston protesters. With the “hairies” gone, we are entering a new and harsher era for British policing.

“Skylark” is published by Coronet.

*Names have been changed.

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