The not-so-public inquiry into undercover policing has started its evidence hearings

BSC member Raphael Schlembach reports on the oral evidence hearings of the Undercover Policing Inquiry in England and Wales.

Raphael Schlembach is a Principal Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Brighton. His research interests span social theory, criminal justice and political protest.

The Undercover Policing Inquiry, set up in 2015, finally has begun to hear oral evidence. Yet, most participants remain side-lined and national security considerations dominate the proceedings. This article argues that the inquiry’s chairman, Sir John Mitting, has lost the confidence of the majority of those with an interest in the scandal of undercover policing – victims, campaigners, journalists, academics – with the exception of the police and state representatives. Nevertheless, criminologists and policing scholars should follow the proceedings with interest.

A grainy photograph (see above) released by the Undercover Policing Inquiry shows the first undercover police unit set up in 1968, led by chief inspector Conrad Dixon with the blue jacket, deployed to spy on potential ‘subversives’.

It took a while. After some five years, £30million in mostly staffing or legal costs, and over a hundred anonymity orders preventing the publication of the names (and sometimes cover names) of former undercover officers, the Undercover Policing Inquiry (UCPI) has held its first set of evidence hearings in the first half of November 2020.

The inquiry, chaired by Sir John Mitting, a former High Court judge, had been set up in 2015 by Theresa May as a public inquiry according to the 2005 Inquiries Act. Three home secretaries later, the UCPI finally has had its first police witnesses on a zoom call, though unless you are one of the few registered parties allowed to view the stream in a four star London hotel, you are restricted to follow a live transcript. That’s one of the many reasons, as its critics assert, that the inquiry is “public” in name only.

According to his remit, Mitting is tasked to ‘inquire into and report on undercover policing operations conducted by English and Welsh police forces in England and Wales since 1968’. But the context is much more specific and inherently political, as the first three weeks of evidence hearings confirmed.

In this first phase of its work, the UCPI considered evidence about the period from July 1968 to the end of 1972. In March 1968, following a large rally to protest against the Vietnam war, a large part of the demonstration entered Grosvenor Square in Mayfair, home to the American embassy. Protesters pushed back police lines and mounted police responded with charges and mass arrests. It was the impetus for a new, secretive unit reporting to Special Branch, eventually called the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS).

SDS officers grew long hair and beards and adopted the cover identities of progressives and revolutionaries. Their first target was the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign and its key figures, including Tariq Ali and Ernie Tate. During the 1970s and 1980s followed long-term infiltration of the Socialist Workers Party and other socialist and anti-racist groups. Later they also included animal rights groups, environmental protesters and some far right groups.

Giving his evidence over a full day of questioning, Tariq Ali, the Trotskyist author and intellectual, said that he has been spied upon by at least 14 undercover police officers over several decades. The surveillance continued until at least 2003, when Ali was on the national committee of the Stop the War Coalition mobilising against the invasion of Iraq.

There is considerable public interest in undercover policing, especially the targeting of so-called subversives and political radicals by the SDS and its successor organisation, the National Public Order Intelligence Unit (NPOIU), which apparently disbanded, or rebranded, in 2011. Over the next two years, the public inquiry will hear further evidence from former police officers and from those subjected to intrusive surveillance about the undercover deployments and their effects. Of particular concern are:

  • The deployment of undercover officers to infiltrate and monitor primarily left-wing political groups and individuals, including elected representatives
  • Methods of deception that included long-term friendships and sexual relationships with activists
  • The creation of cover identities based on the details found on the birth and death records of deceased children, without their parents’ knowledge or consent
  • The monitoring of trade union activity that led to the blacklisting of workers
  • Officers attending criminal courts in their cover names, contributing to large-scale miscarriages of justice

I have followed the work of the UCPI for almost five years, observing most of its preliminary hearings held in the Royal Courts of Justice from 2016 to 2019. I witnessed delays and legal arguments that some said were deliberate tactics of obfuscation and obstruction on the part of police lawyers. The inquisitorial process quickly turned adversarial, with activists, researchers and media representatives arguing for full disclosure, while those representing the Home Office and various police bodies attempted to guarantee maximum secrecy, anonymity and document redactions.

The start of the evidence hearings did not settle the concerns of non-state non-police participants that their participation mattered only as an afterthought. One recalled ‘the impression that the Inquiry believes it can do its work without the non-state non-police core participants if needed’. Another, the blacklisted trade unionist and author Dave Smith, compared the inquiry to the Magisterium in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, clinging on to an outmoded and alternative truth.

As an academic observer, I had intended to follow evidence hearings as best as possible. Already before the Covid-19 pandemic, public access to the proceedings looked to be severely restricted. Crucially, the Chair ruled out a live stream, as is now customary for example in the Grenfell Tower Inquiry. Observers had to attend in person. Due to the pandemic and in order to comply with social distancing measures, the UCPI then decided to conduct this phase of hearings virtually. Instead of a publically accessible video or audio feed, a single live stream of the oral evidence was transmitted to a venue in a central London hotel. Even senior media observers complained, with the BBC’s home affairs correspondent Dominic Casciani tweeting that the lack of a video link to the virtual hearings ‘basically means, from a practical perspective as a working reporter, that a public inquiry becomes largely impossible to report.’ Anyone who wanted to follow the proceedings had to apply to attend each day separately, with limited places to maintain social distancing.

And just as England was placed into a renewed lockdown, the Chairman, in his interpretation of the Public Health Regulations, withdrew attendance rights from members of the public. Although journalists and recognised core participants received exceptions, academic researchers did not.

Beyond my professional engagement, I admit to a personal interest in the inquiry’s work. As a student activist for a variety of political causes, I now know that I encountered at least three undercover police officers who had infiltrated the groups that I belonged to. As fellow activists, they were passing acquaintances, rather than friends. On one occasion, an undercover officer going by the cover name Marco Jacobs acted as an agent provocateur to involve me in a protest and we were both arrested for a conspiracy offence. Though never charged, it allowed police to search my house and confiscate, as ‘evidence’, materials for the PhD that I was working on at the time.

There are thousands of such stories of ‘mundane’ uses of undercover policing employed as a mechanism to control protest and activism. Current estimates have it that over 1,000 political organisations were reported on between 1968 and 2011, though only a fraction of them are currently named.

This is a major public inquiry, which allows us to revisit policing history over more than 50 years. It shifts our attention from the ‘policing by consent’ model, to policing by deception. It also demonstrates the difficulty in holding secretive policing functions to account, even when they apparently covered deeply un-democratic roles.

Few, if any, on the non-police side the proceedings so far, have faith in the ability of the Undercover Policing Inquiry to deliver truth and accountability. It appears to be left to campaigning groups and non-academic researchers to find their own ways to scrutinise the role of undercover policing. Using the hashtag #SpyCops on Twitter, they shine a light on the police infiltration of political movements and demand a genuinely public inquiry.

Contact

Raphael Schlembach, University of Brighton

Email: r.schlembach@brighton.ac.uk

Twitter: @raphschlembach

Images: Courtesy of author

After the Pandemic: Criminology and Social Harm after Covid-19

We are in the extraordinary position of being able to observe the genesis of change that is affecting all aspects of our social world

ADiaper

Andy Diaper MA (Crime and Justice) works with vulnerable and excluded people within the community. His research interests are what he calls ‘street life’:  Homelessness, drug dependency/dealing, street drinking, sex work and people who for a variety of reasons enact most of their lives on the street.

 

We are living in exceptional times as Covid-19 appears to be running out of control throughout most of the world. The death toll rises daily at a frightening rate, the fear and tragedy touches everyone’s lives. It feels ever more difficult to get clear and trustworthy information as scientists and politicians in England and indeed from around the world give out contradictory statements. Globalisation has never felt more real or terrifying.  How do we keep ourselves and loved ones safe? Will life ever return to ‘normal’ again? Our collective ontological security is fast slipping away.

Is this a good time to contemplate change? Or to begin planning future research whilst we are surrounded by so much death and pain? The short answer is yes but care and empathy are called for. We are in the extraordinary position of being able to observe the genesis of change that is affecting all aspects of our social world. It is far too early to speculate what changes will occur in the long term but that should not stop tentative exploratory work being carried out now. What better time to start collecting data such as ethnographic inquiry, diaries, collating statistical information now be it false or accurate, the truth can be looked for later.

It is a time of thinking out loud, time to look for the questions to ask, not a time to formulate answers. Perhaps the best way of achieving this is in the form of blogging and social media as opposed to the more formal academic paper. This is also an effective way of reaching a wider audience because of this it is also important to write in an accessible way. Greater reflexivity is required to place us within the research, the epidemic will have touched all our lives. It can be argued that for too long criminology has produced important work deserving of better dissemination, but never gaining the wider recognition it deserves. We are on the cusp of the ‘new normal’ it is an opportunity that cannot be missed.

There has been much speculation on the value of social science during Covid-19. It has been argued that the only science of value concerning the pandemic is medical or related fields such as epidemiology.  This may well be true at the most fundamental level in saving lives and understanding the nature of the virus. The function of the virus is to find hosts to make reproduction possible. However, how the virus can move through populations, who is most vulnerable and at risk is very much the domain of social sciences.

So where does criminology come into play?  At the simplest level it can be seen to fulfil two functions. Firstly, the study of the introduction of the new  ‘The Coronavirus Act 2020’  (2020, Act) and the scope of the effects on our civil liberties. The 2020 Act touches on many aspects either by amending existing statutes or creating new ones. These changes affect many facets of our lives removing some fundamental freedoms: one being the power to restrict public gathering or to prohibit them entirely. It can be argued that when emergency powers are introduced  they can often outlive the original phenomena. Leading to the danger of using the legislation in ways that the Act was not originally created for. There is also the examination of the effects of Covid-19 on crime in general for example the rise in domestic abuse and how some volume crimes appear to have decreased. It will be a time to revisit how we theorise crime.

Secondly there is the social harm perspective to the pandemic. It should be remembered that a zemiological perspective can be used to analyse crime as well as social harm. David Downes famously stated that criminology was a rendezvous discipline and as such zemiology should now be embraced in the same way as sociology or social psychology to give two examples. This is not the place to put a full argument forward on whether it should become a discipline or not. At the time of writing this piece the four nations of the UK are beginning to lift the lock down incrementally. Business and schools  are being urged to re-open despite concerns from elements of the public, press, opposition MP’s and scientists.  On the effect this may have in creating a second spike to the virus, we cannot predict the future, but we can prepare the groundwork for future research. At this time, we do not know what effect this lifting the lock down will have on people’s lives. However, it is not difficult to speculate if this lifting is too early and a second spike is created the devastation could be horrific. It is already tentatively coming to light that the pandemic has affected the vulnerable in society the most. The elderly in care homes, those in poor housing and the lowest paid doing the most dangerous jobs with insufficient protective equipment. Social harm has already occurred, but it could become far worse. It is the time to begin to gather the evidence to build future research even if it does feel very ‘raw’ now. It is also a good time to consider Engels concept of ‘social murder.’

As was said at the beginning this piece contains no answers only questions. By beginning the process when many are struggling to simply get by daily is a big ‘ask’. However, by formulating the questions whilst the pandemic is still all around us, we will form better questions, leading to better research and who knows, answers to better understand and control future disasters.

I will finish on a famous saying from a 1980’s American cop show ‘Hill Street Blues’

‘Let’s be careful out there’

Contact

Andy Diaper, Independent Researcher

Email: Andy.diaper@btinternet.com

Twitter: @andy_diaper

 

Images: courtesy of the author

Bhopal State-Corporate Crime continues to unfold, (1984 – Present), 35 years and counting

On the 35th anniversary of the Bhopal ‘disaster, focus is upon those who have avoided justice. In the pursuit of profit; corporations disregarded health and safety with impunity and appear untouchable…

Sharon Hartles photoSharon Hartles has recently completed her MA in Crime and Justice with the Open University. She has an interest in crimes of the powerful, including state and state-corporate crime. In an explicit attempt to move beyond criminology, she draws upon a zemiological approach to evidence the social, political and economic context in which harm (including crime) is produced and interwoven into society via socio-economic inequalities.

 

On the 3rd December 1984, part of the Union Carbide Corporation (hereafter UCC) chemical plant in Bhopal, a city of Madhya Pradesh, India, exploded. Within three days of the gas leak up to 10,000 people (men, women and children) died and hundreds of thousands more were poisoned. The UCC plant in Bhopal was built and run by Union Carbide India Ltd (hereafter UCIL) an Indian public company in which Union Carbide, an American company, had a majority shareholding. An Operations safety survey was conducted by UCC technicians for the UCIL in May 1982 (thirty-one months prior to the gas leak), which noted various lapses in safety regulations. Three months before the gas leak, (September 1984) an operational safety/health survey raised concerns about a possible runaway reaction; pointing out that water from an identified leak would hasten this reaction resulting in catastrophic failure.

This state-corporate crime (the spillage of large quantities of methyl isocyanate (MIC), a very toxic substance, into the atmosphere from the pesticide plant) was preventable, insofar as it was a consequence of foreseeable and alterable social conditions. UCC ‘was aware of the possibility of a potential runaway reaction that triggered the MIC leak in Bhopal‘ and ‘was aware right from 1982 that the Bhopal plant suffered from serious safety problems‘. In addition, recommended follow-up action was overlooked. Therefore these capitalist harms were not inevitable, but were determined by the (in)actions of powerful states and corporations or crimes of the powerful. This evidences how the Bhopal ‘disaster’ was not an accident, because an accident by definition is an unfortunate incident that happens unexpectedly and unintentionally. Instead, “it was caused by law-breaking, and involved the complicity of a multinational company and Governments”.

Contemporary criminal justice systems (the Indian Penal Code, the official criminal code of India) recognised parts of this ‘disaster’ (Union Carbide’s gassing of Bhopal) as ‘criminal offences’ under the law of culpable homicide (not murder and not negligent manslaughter). However, in June 2010, seven executives of UCIL were found guilty of criminal negligence (not culpable homicide). What is interesting, but not surprising, is that all seven of those (junior officers and senior officials of UCIL) successfully convicted individuals were Indian. This makes visible the stark inequalities in the application of justice administered by the criminal justice systems. Different social groups, for example the relatively poorer, Indian people prosecuted experienced the Indian criminal justice system differently to the American businessman Warren Anderson. Warren Anderson the Chairman and CEO of the UCC at the time of the Bhopal disaster in 1984, on arriving in Bhopal was arrested and formally charged with culpable homicide, punishable by 10 years to life imprisonment and a fine. Although this is a strictly non-bailable offence, meaning the granting of bail would be unlawful, Warren Anderson posted bail, left the country and absconded from justice (he died in September 2014 and never faced trial).

Lawyers representing UCC and Warren Anderson, argued that neither American nor Indian laws applied due to the globalised nature of the state-corporate nexus.  UCIL reported to Union Carbide Eastern Inc (UCE), a wholly owned subsidiary of UCC incorporated in the USA (however, this operated in Hong Kong). Moreover, the intricate globalized network continued because the Bhopal plant reported through another wholly owned USA subsidiary of UCIL, the Union Carbide Agricultural Products Company.

As a consequence of these global economic processes, representatives were able to take advantage of the globalised space in-between the laws, rendering the crimes of the powerful (state and corporations) beyond the reach of the law. In effect, they used the  letter of the law to defeat it’s spirit. With this in mind, it is clear to see how contemporary crime and justice systems focus their wrath on the ‘players’ with less power, (junior officers and senior officials of UCIL) as tokenistic involuntary lambs sacrificed for the slaughter. Whilst those ‘players’ with elite power (Warren Anderson and UCC) elude punishment and exist to commit further state-corporate transgressions.

Multinational corporations are well versed in ‘creative compliance’: using professional advisers with knowledge of the law to take advantage of legal loopholes and UCC is no exception. In 1994, UCC conveniently sold its stake in UCIL and so no longer has assets in India. Practices such as this promote the evasion of accountability and allows UCC to hide-in-plain-sight, but always just out of the reach of justice. In this regard UCC has concealed its actions to be perfectly legal or at least not expressly illegal’.

Seven years later (2001), UCC merged with Dow Chemical Company, and as such it is completely owned by Dow which means Dow (as the parent company) holds all of UCC’s ‘common stock’. In 2002, Greenpeace stated that under US legislation, as ‘parent’ company of UCC, Dow should incur liability to clean up Bhopal. In a series of statements addressing the disaster, Dow (which in September 2017 merged with DuPont) noted its purchase of UCC excluded clean up liabilities from Bhopal.  ‘The chemical industry learned and grew as a result of Bhopal – creating the Responsible Care program with its strengthened focus on process safety standards, emergency preparedness, and community awareness.’ A critical response might question why a morally Responsible Care programme has not been implemented for Bhopal?

Dow celebrated its success of developing ‘ECOFAST’ technology (November 2018) which it claims will reduce environmental harms. A statement which is ironic given the human, non-human and environmental devastation still taking place in Bhopal. Approximately 25,000 people have died, to date, from the gas leak/gas-related illnesses. Thousands of others suffer from chronic debilitating illnesses, and a staggering 570,000 people were exposed to damaging levels of toxic gas. In addition, year-on-year, children are born with congenital malformations evidencing inter-generational trauma.

​In 2018, in stark contrast to Dow whose primary focus was to promote its ECOFAST pure technology, a world away in Bhopal, reality and priorities differ vastly. The abandoned UCC plant remains full of toxic waste, the soil is 100 per cent toxic and pools of mercury are visible on the ground. Ground water at the site, which provides a drinking water supply for approximately fifteen communities is contaminated because untreated chemicals continue to leach through the soil into the aquifer.

​In 1989, thirty years ago, UCC paid out a sum of $470 million in full settlement and never looked back; leaving the residents of Bhopal exposed to ongoing contamination from their abandoned factory site. This worked out to each gas-exposed victim receiving an amount of $500 for life-long debilitating injuries and to pay for decades of medical bills. The next generation of children (afflicted by Union Carbide’s poison) of gas-affected parents received no financial aid. Activists have been fighting ever since to get more compensation for those affected, to get the site cleaned up and to prevent the devastation from spreading. The state of Madhya Pradesh has declared itself unequipped to deal with the Bhopal clean up and for these reasons claim that the 1989 settlement was inadequate. In a curative petition Dow have been requested by the federal government to pay an amount of $1.2 billion.

Bhopal, has demonstrated how it is the most vulnerable members of society who continue to ‘pay the price’ for the crimes of the powerful or state-corporate crime-waves. Thirty five years after the preventable gas leak at Bhopal, its harms are still manifesting. All of this as a direct result of cost-cutting measures and failure to enforce health and safety regulations. The 3rd December 2019 is the thirty-fifth anniversary of the Bhopal state and corporate crime. It also marks thirty-five years of continuing trauma inflicted upon the Bhopali people and thirty-five years in which the Bhopalis continue to fight for justice and accountability.

As part of this continued fight for justice against the state-corporate massacre which took place in Bhopal the Indian courts yet again summoned Dow chemical to attend a court date, on 13th November 2019, to face criminal charges for the part Union Carbide played in the Bhopal state-corporate crime. However, as the Department of Justice (DOJ) (USA) did not serve the summons to Dow Chemical Company, the likelihood of them appearing was negligible, and Dow Chemical did not appear in court demonstrating disdain for previous negligence. Such incontrovertible evidence illustrates why the unending aftermath of the world’s worst industrial disaster resulting from state-corporate crime has continued to unfold across decades and generations, incurring new victims’ year on year, as the battle for justice for Bhopal endures.

Justice for Bhopal is an international campaign: a global coalition of environmental and social justice groups led by survivors of the ongoing disaster in Bhopal. There are many ways to support Bhopal, the three listed are just a few of those suggested by the Justice for Bhopal group:

Further campaign resources can be found here:

Alternatively, The Bhopal Medical Appeal is a health fund which provides appropriate response for the Bhopal survivors – because Bhopal matters.

 

Originally posted on:  sharonhartles.weebly.com

Contact: Sharon Hartles

Email: sh28739@ou.ac.uk

Twitter: @shartles1

Images: courtesy of the author and Wikimedia Commons CC-BY- 3.0