Undercover police watchdog slammed

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Published: Tuesday 14th October 2014 by The News Editor

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A group of senior police officers in charge of keeping undercover policing in check lacks “teeth” and should be overhauled immediately, a damning report by inspectors has said.

A “root and branch” shake-up of the National Undercover Working Group, which aims to raise standards in undercover policing, is needed to address an “absence of scrutiny and challenge” of the covert tactic, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) said.

It has been revealed that Metropolitan Police Commander Richard Martin stepped down as chairman of the Working Group during HMIC’s inspection, which was commissioned by the Home Secretary in the wake of a series of scandals surrounding undercover policing.

“Poor knowledge and lack of expertise” among senior leaders was blocking progress in undercover policing, the inspectors found, despite recent criticism of tactics used by officers, such as forming sexual relationships with women they spied on and adopting dead children’s identities.

In its report, HMIC reveals for the first time that there are 1,229 undercover officers working in England and Wales and a total of 3,466 undercover operations were authorised between October 2009 and September 2013.

Inspector Stephen Otter, who led the inspection, said: “It was disappointing to find inconsistencies and shortcomings in the way undercover officers were supported by policies, systems and training across the country.

“Throughout our inspection, undercover officers were consistent in voicing their concerns about the ways in which forces required them to work differently from other forces and from what they understood from their training to be a nationally agreed way of working.

“This is clearly inefficient and, at worst, could lead to avoidable mistakes being made.”

Inspectors raise concerns about the “poor knowledge and lack of expertise” of senior leaders who authorise the use of undercover officers, although they found officers themselves to be “knowledgeable, professional and courageous”.

HMIC said the professional standards body, the College of Policing, had to cancel three of the four courses which it had organised for authorising officers as the the numbers of chief officers signing up to attend was so low.

“It did not come as any surprise to us, therefore, to find that the quality of written authorities by assistant chief constables varied greatly, with too many not providing sufficient details to explain the necessity and proportionality of the decision to authorise the deployment of undercover officers,” the report said.

Elsewhere, the Inspectorate criticises the lack of psychological support in some forces and has called for a combined 10-year cap on length of tenure for foundation and advanced undercover officers after it found an example of one officer who had worked on undercover operations for more than 20 years.

Inspectors said it was “disappointing” to find “material weaknesses” in the leadership of undercover policing and urged c hief constables to work together immediately to adopt a single set of standard operating procedures.

Commander Martin remains a member of the Working Group but was replaced as chairman by Bedfordshire Police Assistant Chief Constable Jon Boutcher.

Mr Martin, a former British Army serviceman, became national lead for undercover policing in January 2013. He joined West Midlands Police in 1994 and moved to the Metropolitan Police in 2004 following a stint in the National Criminal Intelligence Service.

It found that a review by the now-defunct National Policing Improvement Agency, which finished in July 2012, was broadly ignored by the Working Group with many forces yet to implement its recommendations.

HMIC found the Working Group lacked ” effective and co-ordinated direction”, was “un clear about its role” and its chair and members were also unclear about how it was being held to account for the work which it was undertaking.

“This is unacceptable, especially in the light of today’s widely-held understanding of just how important sound oversight of this essential yet intrusive police tactic is,” the report added .

Elsewhere, a “culture of secrecy amongst the undercover community” and a view that the “undercover community has been nailed shut for years” were hindering progress.

Inspectors said in one instance they were initially denied access to covert premises housing an undercover unit and were told that “chief officers were not allowed access to the same premises”.

This “closed” attitude was behind the “failure” of the police to adapt undercover policing response to online threats such as child sexual exploitation.

It found that 25 forces had a dedicated undercover online capability, 13 further forces worked with neighbouring forces on the issue and five forces did not have any undercover online capability at all.

It added that the official Authorised Professional Practice Covert Undercover Operations guidance was not fit for purpose.

Mr Boutcher said: “Commander Richard Martin made a decision in August 2014 that, as undercover policing is such an important issue, the working group would benefit from the leadership of a more senior police officer with a greater influence nationally.

“The role was advertised to chief police officers and I was appointed to take on leadership of the group.

“Richard Martin is still providing a valuable contribution to the working group and has done an outstanding job in designing the programme of work that is now delivering the improvements that the report recommends.”

Published: Tuesday 14th October 2014 by The News Editor

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