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The true cost of undercover policing

How much do we understand about the impact going undercover has on officers? And is anyone even asking the question?.

Former detective sergeant Neil Woods

Former detective sergeant Neil Woods

Date - 10th November 2020
By - Chloe Livadeas
3 Comments 3 Comments}

Neil Woods is former undercover drugs detective. Over fourteen years of his career with Derbyshire Constabulary he posed as a crack and heroin addict in order to gather intelligence and evidence on the networks of violent gangs who controlled the market.

Diagnosed with chronic-PTSD, he still battles with his past experiences of keeping his identity safe from organised criminals who were murdering rivals, poisoning informants and threatening families.  

The former detective sergeant – and father of two - has been threatened with weapons, stripped naked at gun point in a wire-search and almost run-down by a car after being caught with a hidden camera. 

Neil also had a lot of success doing what he did. He calculates his work helped put people behind bars for a total of over 1,000 years, including six of the Burger Bar Boys who terrorised Birmingham's streets for over 20 years.

But Neil believes he has 'first hand knowledge'  of how enforcement created a gap in the market that was quickly filled, and believes policing tactics bred more violence as criminals made more vicious attempts to evade capture. He became disillusioned with drugs policing and having left the force now advocates the decriminalisation of drugs.

He says part of his PTSD stems from what he describes as “moral injury” – a sense of guilt for deceiving people around him who believed he was their friend.

“I thought that I was manipulating vulnerable, problematic heroin users who needed help. And so their lives were made much worse by meeting me. And when I was a representative of the state all of the resources were thrown into my persecution of them that should have been sewn into health interventions to help them.”

Despite his experiences Neil says he is not against covert tactics. He says certain criminality, such as terrorism justified undercover work because “that would be worth risking my mental health for because there is a clear tangible benefit”.

“Cops - we're duty bound, and we do take risks. Every cop out there knows that there is a risk of being injured. I've been assaulted on duty and had time off sick from violence, like a lot of cops have, and you go into the job understanding that.

“So the chance to save lives from terrorism then that's justified, the cost is justified.”

The cost for Neil and others like him was long-term damage to his mental wellbeing, caused by the stress and fear he was subjected to for long periods while working undercover.

He worked with the force's East Midlands Special Operations Unit between 1993 and 2007. And as time went by he had less and less faith that he was being kept safe by the institution because of what he called “corruption and incompetence”.

Neil clearly had to be extremely wary of protecting his identity but the threat that it would be compromised did not just come from the openly criminal side of the fence.

Local officers were ordered not to ask his real name or where he was from and he used the same alias with them as he did with people on the streets.

The idea was to “try and cocoon me from corruption” which was an admission corrupt officers were tied up with the OCGs, he says.

A few months into a job in Nottingham Neil was introduced to two new officers in his back-up team.

One of them, he said, made the hairs on the back off his neck stand up.

“Instinctively, my senses are screaming at me that this guy was wrong.”

He told the SIO: “Boss, I don’t trust this guy. I don’t want him in the briefing. I don’t want him knowing what I’m doing.”

It turned out the man was an employee of notorious gangster Colin Gunn, paid to be an officer - plus bonuses - for good information.

He had been in the police for seven years.

Neil says in the aftermath of this revelation it became clear senior officers knew of the danger that undercover criminals were working alongside the unbdercover units.

“Of course it happens with this much money involved - how can it not?” says Neil.

He says that's also been his experience of the attitude of senior management to the threat. “I've talked to chief constables since who all say: ‘We’re aware, that's why the safeguards were in place’.”

“But the safeguards were only about protecting my identity. They have no way of actually defending against that level of corruption.”

He describes that particular operation in Nottingham as the riskiest job he has ever done. “I really thought I was going to die a couple of times on that job,” he said “And when you come back to your safe location I didn't necessarily feel safe, because I couldn't trust anyone.”

Neil undercover in Derby 1995-6

Neil’s had a samarai sword to his throat, a knife to his belly, a gun pulled on him, a knife to his groin.

After having months of counselling and psychiatry he now knows his PTSD is largely rooted in those experiences, and exacerbated by fear of being attacked by those he was duping.

“Each time I felt more risk because I didn't feel like the institution was backing me up,” he said. 

And he feels the safeguards against the psychological risks to his mental health were inadequate.

Back when he was an officer with Derbyshire he attended mandatory visits to a counsellor.  

“It was a complete waste of time, it was done on the cheap. It was clear that the people really didn't really have a clue what the work was about. It was box ticking, institutional arse covering, because it was of no benefit.”

In 2003 he’d been working long hours for an “incredibly stressful, dangerous job”.

“I was clearly suffering from stress, not just mentally feeling in a fog, but also physically, visibly, I was getting cracks in my cheeks.”

The job was stopped for a day and Neil was sent to see the counsellor.

“They basically said ‘you can go back to work tomorrow, but you have to work less hours’.

“It was almost embarrassing, just how little they understood what it was about.”

After Neil went back to conventional detective work, his mental health went downhill and he had what he described as a breakdown and then spent two weeks at the Police Rehabilitation Centre, Flint House in Goring-on-Thames.

He feels he was abandoned by the force and says no one from the organisation has actively inquired about his welfare. Following his time at Flint House he resigned and says he was only awarded an ill health pension last year.

Although, to be fair to the force, he says they didn’t even know he had PTSD.

“But the system should be in place so it’s immediately obvious that I've had these experiences, I used to work undercover and there should be an automatic red flag," he adds.

“The point here is - the institution has that record. They clearly know the things that have happened to me. And yet I have a mental health crisis and it is not mentioned or looked at or considered at all. The institution doesn't want to face up to the possibility of how damaging it is, because [undercover operations] are seen as too useful.

“It’s the only way you get 50 people locked up in a town for dealing heroin.”

More than a decade on from all this Neil says he “functions - except when I don’t”.

He still gets times of hyper vigilance, which he says is exhausting, triggers of anxiety and still has dips of depression.

And he says he’s doing better than other undercover officers he knows who have suffered similar disorders.

Neil is telling his story in the wake of the Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Bill currently making its way through Parliament. In October MPs voted in favour of the bill which formalises the legal framework in which undercover officers and informants operate but does not, he believes, address the immorality of some undercover tactics and the impact they have on the lives of members of infiltrated groups.

The Bill is now being scrutinised in the House of Lords and Neil has been in discussion with Peers with a view to put forward some amendments. 

He says the fact the bill had cross-party support was “jaw dropping”, particularly as it applies to informants and undercover officers equally.

“We’re now going to retrospectively authorise informants to commit crimes because informants already do their best to manipulate the police and they do have their own agendas, and they're certainly going to commit crimes for their own purposes. The quality of most informants is not the highest. They're going to be making operational decisions there.”

Last month the College of Policing updated its guidance on undercover policing. The new document does not go as far as to forbid undercover officers having sexual relationships with people they meet in the course of their duties. It states if it needs to be done to protect someone’s cover "this activity will be restricted to the minimum conduct necessary to mitigate the threat".

The police service’s past record in this regard is currently being scrutinised in the Undercover Policing Inquiry (UCPI) which finally started hearings this month, five years after bering set up by former Home Secretary Theresa May. 

Several women who say they were duped into sexual relationships with undercover officers have already received compensation from the Met.

Neil believes little progress has been made from the “shocking aspects” of that period of undercover work and “the idea that women would be treated in that way”.

“It's just baffling the government hasn't come down on the right side of this (the bill) and the opposition hasn't taken a stronger line,” he says.

The college's updated guidance does place more emphasis on officer welfare, and lays out how officers should have regular psychological assessments and have access to wellbeing support, therapy or treatment.   

Neil says this is badly needed as all the former-undercover officers he knows are struggling with their mental health.

“No one’s speaking to me, there's no communication with anyone who used to do this. There's no investigation as to as to how it's affected anyone's health.

“I simply don't believe any of these new measures will reduce the risks. They are underestimating just how impactful this work is.

But more importantly, he says there should be a proper cost benefit analysis of the following question:  "if we are prepared to risk the health of our undercover officers, then let's also provide proof that it's reducing crime and making society safer.”

In his opening statement to the UCPI on Monday (26 October), counsel to the inquiry David Barr QC set out the background and why it was established in 2015.

He made the point that maintaining long-term deception didn’t just take its toll on those who were misled, and the impact “on the mental health of some undercover officers appears to have been considerable”, and “some officers' families also suffered”.

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