Opinion: Can actions of undercover police who had relationships with targets ever be justified?

An inquiry into undercover police who had sexual relationships with their targets is finally underway, but Dr Paul McFarlane (UCL Security & Crime Science) asks: can their actions ever be justified?

When Helen Steel was a young environmental activist in England in the 1990s, she was deliberately manipulated and deceived into having an intimate relationship with a man she knew as John Barker. Steel says she believed she was part of a loving relationship, but shortly after Barker told Steel that he wanted to spend the rest of his life with her, he disappeared.

Steel spent 18 years searching for him and was shocked to discover the man she loved was not the person she thought him to be. John Barker was the name of a deceased child, used as a cover name by serving Metropolitan Police officer John Dines. Dines was an undercover officer, working to infiltrate protest groups pursuing social, political and environmental causes.

Over the past decade, we’ve learned more and more about undercover policing practices. Much of it reveals a shocking lack of adherence to the fundamental principle of policing by consent. It should give all citizens pause to realise how ordinary members of the public, like Steel, exercising their democratic rights were subjected to abusive and inhumane treatment under the aegis of the British state’s paranoia about social and political activism at that time.

Public inquiry

In 2014, the government announced a judge-led public inquiry into undercover policing in England and Wales. This was in response to the allegations of sexual relationships as well as disturbing disclosures that undercover officers had infiltrated the campaign group launched in the wake of the racially motivated murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993.

After many delays, the inquiry only started hearing live evidence in November 2020. Many participants have expressed a lack of faith in the inquiry.

Steel is part of a group of women who were manipulated into long-term sexual relationships with undercover police officers. Some of these officers even fathered children while infiltrating activist groups. Financial compensation and opaquely worded apologies are not enough. The women, harmed by their own state’s activities, deserve the truth.

The police have sought to convince the inquiry of their commitment to a "frank and full investigation of these matters". In theory, this all sounds good. In practice, however, their words and actions are somewhat incongruous.

The police have been reluctant to release essential information into the public domain. In the early stages of the inquiry, the police sought to prevent the disclosure of cover names used by the undercover officers. Reassuringly for the women involved, the inquiry rejected these requests and insisted the cover names be made public, which they since have.

There are, of course, circumstances where it is in the public interest not to release sensitive information. However, the release of cover names at the very least is essential to the truth. That the police give the privacy of the officers concerned more weight than that of the women affected is perplexing and obstructive. There may be more women like Steel who have had intimate relationships with undercover officers. Without knowing their cover name, they will never be able to come forward.

The rationale for this reluctance is laden with doublespeak about the risks to the security and psychological wellbeing of officers and the potential problems it might cause for future recruitment of undercover officers. Perhaps the biggest paradox here is just how much information the police themselves have put into the public domain that openly discloses undercover tactics and methodologies. In just one example, when giving a statements to the media about an undercover operation in Manchester, senior police officers openly disclosed how undercover officers were able to infiltrate criminal gangs.

Legitimate function in society

By its very nature, undercover policing is intrusive and complicated. It is fundamentally a human activity and is therefore predisposed to errors and failures. There is no dispute that it has saved lives and, in the right circumstances, can be a vital tactic to combat crime and keep the public safe. Selected examples of this being the case have been provided to the inquiry. These examples are persuasive and lend support to the proposition that undercover policing, within an appropriate legal and ethical framework, has a legitimate function in our society.

Truth, not sophistry, should characterise everything disclosed by the police to the inquiry. The women manipulated by the undercover officers in these cases fear the truth will evade them. And at this point, even if it didn’t, it’s hard to see how any explanation for could justify the destruction wrought on their lives in the name of investigating campaign groups in a democratic society.

This article was originally published in The Conversation on 18 December 2020.