#004/2012 Stronger controls needed for undercover deployments that tackle criminality associated with public order and domestic extremism

Undercover officers deployed into protest communities gathered intelligence which enabled the police to prevent acts of serious violence; but there was serious intrusion into the lives of others, and this risk needs to be better managed in future, a report published today by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) has found.

HMIC reviewed the use of undercover officers by the National Public Order Intelligence Unit (NPOIU), which is now part of the National Domestic Extremism Unit (NDEU). The NPOIU was funded by the Home Office to gather and coordinate intelligence in order to:

  • reduce criminality and disorder from domestic extremism; and
  • support forces across England and Wales managing strategic public order issues.

HMIC found that while there was only a handful of this kind of undercover deployment active at any one time, the intelligence these officers gathered allowed the police to prevent bombs being planted; recover explosives; prevent arsons and serious violence being committed; seize weapons and equipments; and frustrate attacks on the national infrastructure.

Undercover deployments are inherently risky: and those aimed at gathering intelligence (ie as carried out by the NDEU) were in some respects more so than those aimed at gathering criminal evidence (e.g. staging a drugs purchase on a street corner). For instance, they tend to last longer (sometimes years), partly because trust takes longer to grow; this increases the risk of intrusion into the lives of all members of the group among which they are deployed. In addition, there is not the same accountability to the courts as for evidence-gathering deployments.

HMIC found that as well as being more risky, NPOIU operations were not as well controlled as those of other units which deploy undercover officers on serious criminality. This was especially so in the case of Mark Kennedy, where the evidence suggests the risks of intrusion into the lives of members of the public while undercover were not well managed; on occasions, he did not follow the codes of practice for undercover officers, or the instructions of his supervisors; and NPOIU/NDEU did not identify the problems as quickly as they should have.

HMIC is therefore making recommendations to improve the control of undercover officers deployed to tackle criminality associated with public order and domestic extremism. These improvements centre on three main areas:

System of control: Serious consideration should be given to establishing a stronger system of pre-authorisation for pre-planned, long-term intelligence development operations, in order to increase the level of accountability in future. This pre-authorisation should not sit within the police; if it were done by the courts it could create issues for judicial independence and the OSC might be a suitable alternative.

The risks associated with undercover tactics need to be controlled at all stages of an undercover officer’s deployment, from authorisation through to exit strategies. The NDEU should strengthen their implementation of existing controls.

Definitions: HMIC recommends that a clearer definition of domestic extremism (which reflects the severity of crimes that might warrant this title) would help in judging whether an undercover deployment is an appropriate tactic to use. HMIC proposes a working reference point for this, and outlines a practical framework of six questions against which officers can test whether a potential deployment is necessary and proportionate.

Structure: HMIC recommends a clear separation between units that collect intelligence on public order generally and those that collect intelligence on extremism, in recognition of the fact that domestic extremism and public order policing are two different police functions.

HMIC also reviewed whether the systems adopted by the NPOIU (which was set up in 1999) overlapped with those of the Metropolitan Police’s Special Demonstration Squad (SDS – which was closed in 2008). This revealed there were a small number of staff and managers who had worked for both the SDS and the NPOIU in some areas. Some issues relating to SDS are already being considered by the IPCC, and HMIC has communicated additional matters to them for consideration. The MPS has agreed to undertake a separate, external and independent review of all the other MPS units which carry out undercover work, (but were outside the scope of HMIC’s review) in order to assure the Commissioner that current best practice is being applied.

Sir Denis O’Connor, HM Chief Inspector of Constabulary said:

“The police are right to use undercover tactics in order to protect the public from serious harm. But these operations are inherently risky and must only be used when they are necessary and proportionate. NPOIU operations were not adequately controlled in this regard.

“HMIC reviewed evidence available at the time, but not all of this can be put in the public domain.”


Notes to editors

  1. A copy of the report A review of national police units which provide intelligence on criminality associated with protest can be found on the HMIC website.
  2. In January 2011 HMIC announced we would carry out a review of the operational accountability of undercover work conducted by the National Public Order Intelligence Unit (NPOIU). The terms of reference and further information can be found on the HMIC website
  3. The National Public Order Intelligence Unit (NPOIU) was created in 1999 as part of the Police Service’s response to campaigns and public protest that generate violence and disruption. The NPOIU’s role was to provide police with intelligence on campaigners’ plans in order to enable forces to protect the public by preventing crime and disruption.
  4. It is normal practice for the police to neither confirm nor deny the true identity of undercover officers. This is to protect both the officers themselves, and the effectiveness of the tactic. However, the case of Mark Kennedy is one of exceptional circumstances, including his own revelations, the media interest in him, and the fact that the Court of Appeal named him on 19 July 2011. Because of this, HMIC considers that it is in the public interest on this occasion to use his real name.
  5. HMIC is an independent inspectorate, inspecting policing in the public interest, and rigorously examines the efficiency and effectiveness of police forces and authorities to tackle crime and terrorism, improve criminal justice and raise confidence. HMIC inspects and regulates all 43 police forces in England and Wales together with other major policing bodies such as the Serious Organised Crime Agency, the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the British Transport Police.
  6. For further information, or to request an interview, HMIC’s press office can be contacted during office hours from 8:30am – 5:30pm Monday – Friday on 0203 513 0600.
  7. HMIC’s out of hours press office line for urgent media enquiries is 07836 217 729.