Soapbox: Police Spies Out of Lives

Undercover Relationships: Unravelling the Truth

I have spoken at a number of public events about the experience of being spied upon by the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS) – a unit within the Metropolitan Police’s Special Branch. In particular, about the intimate, five-year relationship I had with the man I knew as Mark Cassidy, who I later learned was undercover police officer Mark Jenner. 

The experience brings together the personal and political in a particularly unusual and powerful way. With other women who suffered similar experiences, we brought a legal case against the Metropolitan police for deploying these officers into our most private lives.

In the 1990s, I was a member of an independent, politically non-aligned group in Hackney, North London called the Colin Roach Centre; an organisation that had successfully exposed corruption in the Met police, raising awareness of systemic racism in the force with a particular focus on the disproportionate number of black people killed in police custody. Much of the Centre’s work was to support families fighting for justice and anti-deportation campaigns. Members had a strong commitment to anti-fascism, anti-racism and trade unionism.

After a conversation with another activist soon after Mark’s sudden and unexpected disappearance, I started to suspect he was a spy. During our five-year relationship, however, I had no such suspicions. With hindsight of course, I realise he was highly skilled at avoiding questions he didn’t want to answer. And like so many of the other police spies now exposed, he told a heart-breaking story of early family tragedy. He gave good reasons why I couldn’t meet any of his relatives and I had no reason to doubt these were true.

As my suspicions about Mark grew, with very few exceptions, no-one believed me. Friends and family read as paranoia my tortuous explanations for why I believed him to be a State agent. I was in shock, they said. Traumatised by the sudden change in my circumstances, I was not seeing clearly. Why would the State waste public money on a tiny little organisation such as ours? They simply wouldn’t deploy an agent into someone’s most intimate and private life for five years, these people said. Not here in Britain!

Through our legal action, a picture has emerged of systemic, institutional sexist abuse of female activists in social justice campaigns. There have been more women discovering their ex-boyfriends were not who they seemed with more cases being brought.

Deborah is one of these brave women whose case is ongoing. She tells another disturbing #spycops story about her relationship with Marco Jacobs. Describing the most intimate moments of your life to public audiences is exposing and painful. Something the Metropolitan Police seem unwilling to countenance as they continue to drag out this latest round of litigation. It’s as if their strategy is literally written on the back of a fag packet in a pub: “Grind the bastards down.” 

But it’s not only in the ongoing litigation that the Met are deliberately stalling.

As a consequence of the spotlight being shone on these abusive police deployments, a Judge led inquiry into Undercover Policing in England and Wales began in July 2015. It was initially expected to report in 2018 but having not yet heard any evidence the process is clearly taking much longer.

And one of the reasons for the delay? Endless restriction orders and risk assessments submitted by the Met to protect the privacy of officers who served in the SDS and NPOIU, and who spied on thousands of British citizens involved in campaigning for social justice. Restriction orders that, if the Met are successful, will ensure the names of officers who served in these squads remain anonymous.

On April 5th, there will be a hearing where the Met’s lawyers will request an extension until October to complete paperwork that the Judge had said should be submitted by March 1st. It had been hoped that in the Spring of this year, the Inquiry would begin to hear evidence from officers involved in these deployments. Evidence that might help those spied upon to piece together some of the missing bits of their life stories. Was their boyfriend authorised to attend that family wedding? Did their superiors know when he attended a family funeral? Were foreign security services informed when Special Branch employees were visiting their country using a false passport?

Despite the successes in bringing this political policing scandal to public attention - starting with our case, the Police Spies Out of Lives and COPS campaigns, the diligent investigative work by reporters such as Rob Evans and Paul Lewis, and the painstaking research undertaken by the Undercover Research Group - there is still much we don’t know about SDS and NPOIU deployments.

During our case, the police did everything in its power to avoid disclosure. The only information we have about why these officers were deployed in our lives and who they really were, is what we have researched and collated. The response to my Data Protection Application to see the files held on me is ‘there is no information the Commissioner is required to supply’.

For those of us whose lives have been shaped by this experience, it is crucial that the public inquiry is transparent and open. We’ve had enough secrets and lies to last a lifetime. At the end of the Met police’s ‘unreserved apology’ to us, we were told: …’" is hoped that the Claimants will now feel able to move on with their lives.’" We are all trying to do just this but without disclosure, too many unanswered questions linger.

In this same apology, they recognised that “these relationships were a violation of the women’s human rights, an abuse of police power and caused significant trauma… Most importantly, relationships like these should never have happened. They were wrong and were a gross violation of personal dignity and integrity.”

Why then is the police not issuing similar apologies to the next tranche of women bringing litigation? Women like Deborah and Andrea? And why, in its approach to the Inquiry, is it prioritising secrecy and anonymity over truth and reconciliation?

Without knowing the cover names of those deployed over decades, it is impossible to assess the scale of this scandal. How many other women have suffered like us? How many other lives have been tainted by intimacy with someone who doesn’t really exist?

We call on the Inquiry to demand that the police:

  • Release the cover names of all undercover operatives deployed in these units;
  • State the names of all campaign and protest groups spied upon;
  • Open the files held on all those spied upon.

For the Public Inquiry into Undercover Policing to be meaningful, it needs to hold to account all those connected to the actions of these undercover units, not just the low-ranking officers. Whilst these individuals carry a huge personal responsibility for their actions, the bigger picture unravelling of mass surveillance of protest is equally dramatic, and deserves the same level of scrutiny. 

Words by Alison

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