Here is a post from a contributor who has recently emailed me with a message to convey. He is an ex Met Police Officer and his name is Chris Hobbs. The content is self-explanatory and the words are all his own:
As a former police officer who spent 21 of his 32 year service in Special Branch, I was as shocked as anyone else when the allegations of police attempting to smear the Lawrence family were placed into the public domain by the combined efforts of the Guardian and Channel 4’s Dispatches programme. Going back to 1993 I can remember the anger I felt when I heard of Stephen’s murder which was followed by bewilderment at the apparent failure to ‘nail’ the culprits. I can also remember the apprehension at the time amongst police circles that Stephen’s murder could be the catalyst for serious public order clashes which could become racial in character.
Every officer within Special Branch knew of the existence of the ‘hairies’ as the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS) were known. The nickname arose from the dramatic change of appearance these officers had to undergo in order to blend in with their targets. Although we in Special Branch knew of them and their role, it was not something we would speak about outside the branch and even when SDS officers moved back to normal duties they would say very little about their previous activities. There is no doubt that if SDS officers were tasked specifically to ‘dig up the dirt’ on members of the Lawrence family, there could be no justification for that course of action. These instructions were of course allegedly delivered to whistleblower, Peter Francis, some 20 years ago and he needs to be certain that these were his precise instructions. There is no question that, in common with every murder investigation, background intelligence checks would have been carried out on the backgrounds of family members and those close to them. This has been standard practice since the dawn of murder investigations and begs the question as to whether there any chance that this process through the mists of time, has become misinterpreted.
There is also no doubt that police would have been closely monitoring whether radical groups with a propensity for violence would attempt to attach themselves to the Lawrence family. This is given some credence by the Daily Mail, who have played a major role in supporting the Lawrence’s campaign, stating earlier this week that the Lawrence’s refused to associate themselves with groups such as Panther UK, whose activities could lead to violence. However, mitigating against this are concerns that the Met has ‘previous’ in terms of smearing and mud flinging, against its own employees. Police officers and staff who embark on Fairness at Work (a fluffy term for grievance) or employment tribunal procedures will find that their supervising officers will look to throw mud at the individual complainant. This of course weakens any argument by the Met that ‘it couldn’t happen now.’ In terms of ascertaining whether the ‘smear’ or similar instructions were given, any enquiry should note that one of the characteristics of Special Branch was its meticulous attention to detail. Reports or SB1’s had to be written, re-written and re-written again until they satisfied the massed ranks of Chief inspectors whose primary role was to ‘carve’ reports.
All reports were sent to the very secure Special Branch registry where they would lie on file. These files would include those marked ‘secret’ and feature matters relevant to the SDS. I cannot believe that all aspects of SDS work would not be accurately recorded on secret files especially if this targeting went on for several years. This should help determine the exact nature of the instructions given to Peter Francis and possibly other officers. Whilst it not inconceivable that a rogue senior officer whispered suggestions about ‘digging the dirt’ is it really being suggested that succesive supervising officers would have been passing on that same instruction? More likely perhaps that monitoring extremist groups who might be attempting to take advantage of the Lawrence’s tragedy would have been the instruction. Hopefully SDS records, because of their sensitivity, remain intact and it is to be hoped there was no cull of such files when Special Branch were amalgamated with the Anti Terrorist Squad in 2006.
Other recent revelations concern the fact that SDS officers had become ‘babyfathers’ and struck up meaningful relationships with their targets or associates of their targets. There can be no excuse for this and hopefully the Met will accept responsibility in terms of financial recompense and not drag its heels as it seems to do in cases that actually merit a payout. Questions asked during any enquiry will surely concern the recruitment, training, suitability and handling of those selected for SDS duties. Even with such elite bodies as the SAS or MI5, the most thorough selection processes will occasionally fail and perhaps this is what happened within the ranks of the SDS. Certainly when I was in Special Branch, there were rumours that one individual had ‘gone rogue’ to the extent that he was having such a great time he decided to leave the police and stick with his ‘new buddies’
There is considerable confidence amongst former SDS officers that the enquiry headed by Mark Ellison QC will be both fair and thorough. He will doubtless also note the achievements of the ‘hairies’ and conclude whether the achievements of the SDS over the years outweigh the much publicised alleged transgressions. It remains to be seen whether infiltration of absolutely all groups targeted was proportionate and necessary but it is clear that some posed a real threat to both public order and public safety. A fact largely ignored in this welter of criticism is the fact that officers, at great risk to themselves, did manage to infiltrate organisations that were, quite simply dangerous and who were prepared to condone or use extreme violence including murder. These included groups with links to the IRA, extreme anarchists and neo Nazis.
It always amused me that contrary to their image as right wing protectors of the state, the most common news paper on view each morning in the Special Branch offices at Scotland Yard was the Guardian. When I was interviewed by my vetting officer, a necessary prerequisite for joining Special Branch, I confessed that I had been on anti-fascist and anti-American protest marches in my youth. I was surprised when I was informed that most potential Special Branch and MI5 officers he had interviewed has also participated in demonstrations of the left. One aspect of the recent revelations that is surprising is the fact that much of the information concerning the SDS that has just been revealed was already in the public domain. In 2002 Peter Taylor produced a three part TV documentary series ‘True Spies’ part of which featured the work of the SDS and featured interviews with officers albeit under pseudonyms. These were the subject of a Guardian article by Peter Taylor just days before the TV series which was broadly sympathetic to SDS officers although the series itself was critical of the ‘surveillance state.’
In March 2010, an article in the Observer featured and named Peter Black, the alias of Peter Francis and again it wasn’t unsympathetic to the trials, tribulations and sacrifices made by undercover SDS officers. This 2010 article again covered some of the contentious issues that have grabbed the headline over the last few days. The historic 2010 allegations that have just re-surfaced again in 2013 with such dramatic effect included the fact that SDS officers, including Peter, had slept with those involved in target organisations. The 2010 articles also referred to the use of the identities of dead children by SDS officers which was again an issue repeated in the Dispatches programme. It would appear that the practice ceased when linked government secure IT systems ensured that identities could be established without the use of what was a less than savoury practice but one that was deemed necessary as there was no viable alternative.
The Operation Herne enquiry may well find that it was not just SDS officers who adopted this practice but officers and individuals from other government agencies and that will pose an issue for both investigators and the government. The suggestion by Derbyshire Chief Constable Mick Creedon in charge of Operation Herne that generations of undercover police and their supervisors could find themselves in the dock is patently ludicrous. The original senior police officer who originated the idea is probably in his grave right now and other officers merely followed what was established practice. Has Mick made sure his own house is in order and looked at undercover operations by both Derbyshire and his previous force Leicestershire? Whilst utilising identities in this way may be undersirable, perhaps of equal concern should be the use of deceased children’s identities to obtain UK passports for foreign nationals. The issue of fraudulently obtained UK passports is for another forum; suffice it to say that the abandonment of techniques developed by a handful of officers from the Met and UKBA to detect fraudulently obtained UK passports is, to say the least, a questionable decision by the powers that be from both organisations.
Another significant aspect of the 2010 article is Peter’s infiltration of left wing anti racist organisations in the 1990’s. It’s clear from the article that his efforts enabled the Met to have sufficient resources available to deal with the now notorious anti-BNP demonstration at Welling in October 1993. The objective of some of the organisers was to set fire to the BNP Office in Welling trapping and killing any BNP activist inside and Peter’s intelligence enabled the Met to prevent what would have been a truly disastrous situation. There is no doubt that Doreen and Neville Lawrence would regard as totally abhorrent the death of any person in an incident that would in some way be linked to Stephen, even if those individuals held extreme right wing views.
The Commissioner of the Met, Sir Paul Condon did visit the SDS offices after Welling to congratulate the undercover officers whose intelligence prevented carnage on the day. There is no doubt that prior to this meeting he would have been fully briefed on the work of the SDS. Whilst this might not have included details of every operation, it should perhaps have been enough to excite his curiousity. Perhaps he should have been curious enough to ask where the officers he so fulsomely praised obtained their identities. The assertion by the current commissioner, Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, that some senior officers at the time were not aware of the existence of the SDS is meaningless. The Commissioner Paul Condon clearly did as did the Assistant Commissioner responsible for Specialist Operations, the legendary Sir David Veness and others of ACPO rank who needed to know. It wasn’t a great secret but equally would the senior officer in charge of traffic matters need to be briefed on the existence of the SDS?
Whilst Peter felt uneasy about his role in targeting left wing anti-racist protest groups it shouldn’t be forgotten that Special Branch also targeted those on the right. I was a Special Branch officer during the 90’s and as such, a year before Stephen’s murder, was fully aware that Combat 18, the extreme right group populated by football hooligans was in existence. Combat 18 became an additional responsibility of the Special Branch right wing section who also had their hands full with the BNP. Even before Stephen’s tragic death, racial tensions were high and Special Branch mounted similar operations against neo-Nazi groups as they did against those on the left that unquestionably saved lives. The 2010 Observer article was clearly driven by Peter’s involvement and it also mentioned another issue that has caused concern namely that someone senior within the Met had decided not to disclose the involvement of undercover officers to the Macpherson enquiry set up to investigate Stephen’s death and the subsequent police murder investigation. The question puzzling former SDS officers who were fully aware of the 2002 and 2010 articles is why the issue of smearing the Lawrence family was not mentioned at this time in company with the other revelations. Peter Francis aka Peter Black was clearly talking to journalists back in 2010. Did he sit on the Lawrence family smear story for three years or did the journalists?
Peter Francis has also expressed concern as to his involvement in protests concerning the deaths of black males who have come into contact with police notably Brian Douglas. Curtailing the efforts of peaceful protests may well be an anathema to him and perhaps again the extent and the proportionality of his directed involvement will be found in the SDS files. Instructions to ensure that peaceful protest doesn’t escalate into dangerous violence might be considered proportionate but clearly there is a line to be drawn. It could be that any newly formed protest group would need to be closely monitored until its propensity for violence or lack of it could be established.
The drip drip of disturbing allegations may well continue over the next few days, weeks and months and some could well be proven. The alleged police bugging of Stephen’s best friend Duwayne Brooks during meeting between Duwayne, his solicitor and two police officers makes little sense as the police were actually present and it is hard to see as to how that could be authorised. Certainly if such authorisation were given then the officer authorising would have some explaining to do. It could well be therefore that certain actions were not proportionate. Individuals and groups may well have been targeted that did not deserve to be. The SDS balance sheet in relation to deaths and violence that have been prevented weighed against intrusions into privacy and democratic rights has yet to be determined.
None of the above should create the impression that I am an apologist for the Met. Their treatment of those officers and staff who dare to expose wrongdoing or poor operational decision making is appalling. Police parlance that speaks of ‘doing an officers legs’ if he or she ‘rocks the Met police boat’ is as apposite now as it ever was. If there were mistakes made during Peter’s time then the current situation means that officers are even more likely to keep silent when they should be speaking out in a similar scenario emerges in the future. In May 2011, after exhausting every conceivable avenue, I returned my Good Conduct and Long Service to the Commissioner in protest against operational decisions that I and others believed adversely impacted on the black communities in London and other cities. It was deemed not worthy of the commissioners’ attention and an attempt was made some weeks later to return it to me. The return was attempted by the same Chief Superintendent who had been responsible for those decisions and minutes later informed me that I was being forcibly retired after 32 years exemplary service. No I am no apologist but feel that some degree of balance needs to be applied to the current situation.