The thirteenth stroke of the clock. "It's quiet, Carruthers, too damned quiet". Yes, we all recognise those little indications that, although everything may seem fine on the surface, matters will not stand closer scrutiny. In the case of the apology issued to Helen Steel, Belinda Harvey and others by the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, on 20 November 2015, the indications came just over half way through:
"I can state that sexual relationships between undercover police officers and members of the public should not happen. The forming of a sexual relationship by an undercover officer would never be authorized in advance nor indeed used as a tactic of a deployment. If an officer did have a sexual relationship despite this (for example if it was a matter of life or death) then he would be required to report this in order that the circumstances could be investigated for potential criminality and/or misconduct."
Before analysing these unusually fatuous words it is necessary to give some context. The apology related to periods up to about 2011 when units of the Metropolitan Police known as the Special Demonstration Squad and the National Public Order Intelligence Unit used undercover officers to infiltrate environmental protest groups. As a part of their cover, some of those officers formed long term relationships with women. In some cases they had children by them. Understandably the women felt abused and betrayed because that is exactly what thet were. Scotland Yard paid them compensation.
The accepted view seems to be that the operation got out-of-control and that the relationships should never have happened. Probably that is right but, whether it is not, no one could possibly justify the drivel set out in italics above.
The use of undercover officers is not what most of us regard as sporting. Spying has always been looked down on as underhand and that is why, in wartime, spies are shot. Even in peacetime I do not suppose that the consequences of being discovered by the people you are infiltrating are particularly pleasant. No doubt it is a game for men or women with strong nerves. In the apology, the activities of the officers are described as "deceitful, abusive, manipulative and wrong." If you take out the word "wrong" for the moment, that would seem to be a good description of what going undercover is all about.
The focus of the apology seems to be on sex and long term sexual relationships but officers who go undercover have to deceive a lot of other people as well. There will be lonely people who believe that they have found a friend. People with emotional problems who believe that the officers seek them out because they like them. All these people are abused. They are all deceived. They are all manipulated. If we believe that that is always wrong, then we should not have undercover policemen and should take the consequences. Why then does the apology not go on to say that all undercover work is to be abandoned?
The reason for that is that the public would not be prepared to give up the protection which undercover work by the police affords; so the work will continue. All sorts of people will be deceived, manipulated and abused and that is the price which the public is prepared to pay for its protection. Why does it make a difference if the particular relationship happens to be sexual? Emotional betrayal may be just as damaging in other circumstances.
Obviously the use of undercover officers should not be undertaken lightly and there should be a proper supervision system in place so that they all have someone back at base they can talk to to keep them grounded; but once you approve the use of undercover officers you also accept abuse, manipulation and deceit, To do so but to try to cut it off with a red line at the level of sexual intercourse shown a bizarre neo - Victorian prudery. It wouldn't really work either. Suppose that officers are infiltrating, as I believe was in fact the case, groups which are highly promiscuous. It is really going to be a giveaway if the undercover officer is the one who never has sex. Scotland Yard would have to keep a list of plausible sexual diseases which could be rolled out to avoid awkward encounters.
The truth is of course that once you have accepted the need for underground officers, this prohibition makes no sense at all. What on earth, then, is it doing in a statement by the Metropolitan Police?
I'm afraid we know the answer to that only too well. Someone, somewhere. either at Scotland Yard or in the gloomy recesses of the Home Office, has decided that the best way to defuse the embarrassment over something that got out of hand is to supplement the apology with a restriction on future action. That will sound good to the public. That will satisfy the politicians. That, in fact, will suit everybody except for those who still have to do difficult and dangerous undercover work and who will now, in addition to the obvious risks that they take, have the additional difficulty that if it is necessary to start a relationship they may be exposed to prosecution. To go back to that wretched apology again:
"If an officer did have a sexual relationship despite this (for example if it was a matter of life or death) then he would be required to report this in order that the circumstances could be investigated for potential criminality and/or misconduct. I can say as a very senior officer of the Metropolitan Police Service that I and the Metropolitan Police are committed to ensuring that this policy is followed by every officer who is deployed in an undercover role."
Police officers must be getting used to seeing those who control them lurch from one extreme to another in reaction to criticism. . The force is criticised for racism? Well let's prove our liberal credentials by not coming down on groups of Muslim youths who abuse children in the Midlands. Oh dear, criticised for going light on child abuse? Let's roar around arresting some high profile politicians for murders in Dolphin Square. Goodness knows whether it is senior commanders or the Home Office but someone needs to take a tighter grip. Let's go back to that apology and see if we can find something more sensible. Yes:
"Undercover policing is a lawful and important tactic but it must never be abused."
Yes, that's where the truth really lies. The use of undercover policing has to be justifiable and reasonable. That isn't achieved by red lines but by human judgement. If those who command the police force have made a mess of it in the past, that isn't a sign that we need red lines but that we need better quality senior police officers.
For a final word let's go back to that apology. Try this:
"In light of this settlement, it is hoped that the Claimants will now feel able to move on with their lives. The Metropolitan Police believes that they can now do so with their heads held high."
Fine, but what about the police themselves? Should they as a force hold their heads up high. I certainly hope so. Serving in the police force is an honourable and difficult occupation and things will inevitably go wrong from time to time. Most of them have much to be proud of. And the monkeys who drafted the apology? What about them? Yes, well we all make mistakes and they are probably good enough people when they are not trying to be political. Still, as apologies are their thing, perhaps they ought to offer a private one to their colleagues who do difficult and dangerous work and could well be feeling under-appreciated at the moment.