The Undercover Policing Inquiry shows us why plain clothes police won’t make anyone safer

Featured image courtesy of Paul Hanaoka via Unsplash.

Last week Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a new strategy of having ‘plainclothes’ police officers present in both clubs and bars as a way of tackling sexual harassment and assault. An increased desire to tackle male violence in response to the abduction and murder of Sarah Everard has left many women across the UK feeling unsafe. The PM suggested this new approach to “drive out violence against women and girls”. Social spaces are set to begin reopening in the next few weeks with the easing of lockdown and the government believes the presence of the police will act as a deterrent to perpetrators of sexual violence.

Various charities, groups and journalists have responded with concerns over this policy and feel that it would not reduce crime or bring about any more justice. This is especially due to the context of Sarah Everard’s case, whose alleged murderer is a police officer himself. Another key concern is with regard to a historic abuse of police power over women and how those unidentifiable as police have previously impacted the lives of many women. The Undercover Policing Inquiry (UCPI), still only in its early stages, is currently investigating how the actions of undercover police have led to both legal and personal injustices. To many, it is a key piece of evidence as to why this new policy will only do more harm than good.

What is the Undercover Policing Inquiry?

Established back in 2015, the UCPI has been described by the BBC as “one of the most complicated, expensive and delayed public inquiries in British legal history”. Investigations into police corruption by the Metropolitan Police’s Special Demonstrations Squad (SDS) began back in 2011. However, the scope of investigation began to expand over the following years due to the revelation of misconduct and abuses of power by undercover police.

A systemic exploitation of women has been revealed as part of the inquiry.

The investigation is seeking to investigate both the SDS and the National Public Order Intelligence Unit and their activity since 1968. The now disbanded services were responsible for investigating groups they believed to be radical and a threat to security in the UK. The SDS was responsible for investigating groups within London and the National Public Order Intelligence Unit investigated groups across England and Wales.

A systemic exploitation of women has been revealed as part of the inquiry. In order to obtain information on the groups they were investigating, officers entered into relationships with women (and some men) in order to get information. At least 29 individuals have been identified as having entered into romantic and sexual relationships with undercover police without knowing their real identities.

Instances of this tactic being used can be traced throughout the 52 years that the Undercover Policing Inquiry is investigating. One relationship lasted as long as nine years. Others saw undercover police officers attend the funerals of these women’s parents and some of the relationships even resulted in children.

The revelation of the real identities of officers left many feeling violated. One victim characterised the use of the tactic as “a deception perpetrated by the state”. In 2015, Assistant Commissioner Martin Hewitt offered an apology to victims, characterising these relationships as “abusive, deceitful, manipulative and wrong” and “gross violations of personal dignity and integrity”.  

As the five-year-long inquiry continues, the extent of the trauma experienced by many women continues to be revealed.

‘But undercover and plainclothes police officers are different. Why does the inquiry show any issues?’

This demonstrates a repeated failure to protect women from police crossing personal boundaries in the line of duty.

Undercover police officers and plainclothes officers do differ in their roles and the way they present themselves. Undercover officers are involved in long term investigations; they take on a new fictional persona in order to gain information and deliberately conceal their status as police officers to conduct their evidence gathering. Plainclothes police officers are police who are in civilian dress but required to identify themselves as police officers when using their powers.

However, similar issues arise when looking at accountability and the blurring of professional and personal boundaries. Firstly, throughout the operations conducted by the SDS and National Public Order Intelligence Unit, senior officers failed to end this tactic or recognise the impact that it would have upon the women being deceived. As a result, women were left experiencing abuse and trauma. This demonstrates a repeated failure to protect women from police crossing personal boundaries in the line of duty.

Police officers being investigated in the UCPI significantly broke professional boundaries in their work; there is the concern that plainclothes officers in nightclubs or bars will also blur these boundaries. Police could be presented with the ability to approach women they would have not otherwise come into contact with. They are able to initiate romantic or sexual relationships by virtue of being allowed entry to the club as a plainclothes police officer. Furthermore, unless using their police powers, they are under no obligation to reveal they are police officers on duty. The power between the two individuals within the setting is unbalanced and fosters the potential of becoming exploitative.

Recently, revelations of abuse of vulnerable victims by officers in the Metropolitan police by The Observer have seriously added to these concerns. 600 complaints against the police for sexual misconduct were launched between 2012 and 2018 -  119 of these were upheld. Domestic abuse and rape victims were among those who were subjected to harassment and assault by officers.

Confidence that police professionalism will be upheld is thus waning among women.

Officers are expected to maintain professionalism while on duty. Being in a club to prevent assaults would count as being on duty, meaning that they would have to act in a professional manner and would be unable to drink. But, institutional misogyny is seen to be pervasive throughout the force, demonstrated by the tactics currently under inquiry and recent treatment of vulnerable women. This culture is seen as a dangerous catalyst to male officers blurring boundaries. Confidence that police professionalism will be upheld is thus waning among women.

In the context of the inquiry and recent journalistic findings, proposing such a policy seems confusing. The inquiry, set up by Theresa May when she was Home Secretary, is to “not only look at historical failings but make recommendations to ensure those unacceptable practices are not repeated in the future”. For some, it raises alarm bells that the idea of police with similar circumstances – the concealment of identity combined with an institutional mistreatment of women – are being allowed to go and perform such duties before the inquiry has concluded.

The threat is greater than to just women

Women are not the only group threatened by the presence of plainclothes police in clubs and bars. The impact of the scheme has the potential to reshape the nightlife scene for many marginalised communities. The UCPI and recent events can be seen to compile institutional sexism on top of institutional racism and homophobia from the police, adding women to the group of people who police don’t necessarily serve and protect.

Straight women have already begun to move into gay night clubs and bars by predatory behaviour from men in the civilian population. The distrust in a police force about to be present in the clubs could have a similar effect, driving them into spaces they perceive as safer from any men abusing their power. This could begin to radically reshape and reduce safe spaces for the queer community as they  become less for them.

Furthermore, if the policy of plainclothes police is implemented in gay bars and clubs as well as straight ones, these previously safe spaces will feel a lot less secure for LGBTQIA+ people. People go to these safe spaces with the promise of anonymity and ability to express themselves freely, without fear of judgement. Also, there is once again a fractious historical relationship between the police and queer community. If this element of protection and safety provided by queer spaces is violated, many LGBTQIA+ people will feel that they have lost some key community spaces away from persecution and fear from both straight people and the police.

For Black people, the institutional racism and racial profiling from the police force would have a new avenue to manifest itself. A key influence in driving forward the UPCI was the role of undercover police officers in the Stephen Lawrence case and their impact on the Lawrence family receiving justice for their son. The injustice that many Black people have faced at the hands of the police means this policy, once again, will not instill confidence; police presence in spaces orientated around relaxation and socialisation will likely generate greater fear for Black patrons.

Based on both historical and present-day relationships with the police, those from an ethnic minority background, particularly Black people, and those who are LGBTQIA+ could be significantly impacted and altered by an increased police presence in social spaces.

An extensive portion of the UK population would not feel protected by the Prime Minister proposal of an increased police presence. Many don’t feel protected by police in the first place. There is now a worry that the police could be the ones perpetrating the abuse they are supposed to be preventing. Proposing a policy when a history of misogyny, assault and miscarriage of justice for women is being revealed feels tone deaf to the current fears of those subjected to male violence.

The government may have to wait for the findings of the inquiry for several more years. However, it will be interesting to see if its preliminary findings will be at all factored into the final decision on whether plainclothes police patrolling bars and clubs will become a practice.