Monday 21 October 2013

Spies in Blue Bibs

This is a comment piece I wrote for the Network for Police Monitoring

Are Police Liaison Officers – suspiciously friendly in their pale blue bibs and now commonplace at marches and demonstrations – really deployed simply to ‘facilitate protest’ and ‘ensure there are no surprises’, or is their role rather more duplicitous? For some time, campaigners from groups involved in the Network for Police Monitoring (NetPol) have suspected there is more to these officers, created in response to severe criticism by HM Inspectorate of Constabulary’s ‘Adapting to Protest’ report of intelligence gathering at the 2009 G20 protests, than their public image suggests.

In March this year, NetPol highlighted how Chief Inspector Sonia Davis, head of the Police Liaison Teams (PLT) unit in the Metropolitan Police, gave evidence as a prosecution witness in the trial of Critical Mass cyclists arrested on the evening of the Olympics opening ceremony. Under cross examination, Davis admitted that PLTs gather information on protesters and had even been covertly deployed at previous Critical Mass rides to try to identify ‘leaders’. This might sound a lot like intelligence gathering to most people, although Davis and other senior officers deny this. However, the standard operating procedures for the deployment of Police Liaison Officers had never been made available. Without greater transparency, it was difficult to been difficult to see whether the Met’s claims were truthful.

In early July, NetPol was approached by a constable from the Met’s Gateway Team, who coordinate and train Police Liaison Officers. He had read NetPol’s concerns about the Critical Mass court case on our website and, in the suspiciously friendly way we have come to expect, invited NetPol to participate in forthcoming PLT training, saying this would “offer a real insight into how we deploy Police Liaison Teams and may go some way to alleviating your concerns”. Collectively, NetPol members decided to politely decline, but asked for copies of the training materials and other policies and procedures that might provide some genuine insight without participating in what felt like a public relations exercise.

Incredibly, the officer told us the only way we could access information inevitably available at training sessions we had been invited to attend was through a Freedom of Information Act request. So in late July, we submitted one.

In August, the Met provided a surprisingly detailed response (summarised here by Statewatch). Amongst the training materials released was a presentation on Protester Tactics that contains a hugely disingenuous definition of people involved in protest: we know that the national domestic extremism database contains information on a far wider range of people than those described here as ‘extremists’:
Indeed, with recent demonstrations like the Tower Hamlets anti-EDL protest in September facing such intense restrictions that the Met has, for all intents and purposes, itself become an events organiser, this is probably far closer to the truth:
The document released by the Met on Crowd Psychology (PDF) is also interesting: it’s acknowledgement that crowds have “multiple and separate psychological groups” that “will not always be influenced towards violence by other groups in the crowd” is at odds with the Met’s use of mass arrests to sweep up and arrest protesters, the vast majority of whom later face no further action (as we have seen with cases from 145 arrests of UK Uncut activists at Fortnum & Mason in March 2011 to the 286 arrests of anti-fascists in Tower Hamlets in September 2013). In both cases, the claimed aim of PLTs to “differentiate between groups in the crowd, particularly when using force” seems to come a distant second to intelligence gathering. In the case of direct action at Fortnum & Mason, the then Assistant Commissioner Lynne Owens admitted to the Home Affairs Select Committee that “the fact that we arrested as many people as we did is so important to us because that obviously gives us some really important intelligence opportunities”.

Most revealing are the Standard Operating Procedures (PDF), which specifically address the intelligence, acknowledging that “any suggestion that PLT’s are intended to be ‘intelligence gatherers’ is likely to undermine efforts to build trust and confidence amongst protest groups and individuals”. However, it goes on to say:
“recent experience does tell us that PLT’s do gather accurate intelligence in the normal course of their duties. This is mainly because, pre and post event they are engaging with protest groups and do elicit information in the course of these duties which could be regarded as intelligence . This could include : numbers attending, start and finish times, route, intentions of the group, others groups likely to associate themselves with the event, persons likely to attend, etc . Similarly, on the day of the event, the PLT’s are likely to be working inside or around the group in question and, as a result, are likely to generate high-quality intelligence from the discussions they are having with group members [emphasis added].”

It adds that “all PLT officers must ensure all intelligence is recorded on Crimint” (a criminal intelligence database) and all intelligence obtained during an event “is passed to Bronze Intelligence for analysis and dissemination to Silver and the rest of the Command Team (in the same way as any other intelligence)”. The document goes on to describe the deployment of PLTs as a “tactical option” to deal with identified ‘threats’ to an event, an alternative to deploying Forward Intelligence Team (FIT) spotters and photographers that is the “least intrusive” option.

This confirms what we have suspected for some time: Police Liaison Officers do have an intelligence gathering role and, in certain circumstances, this may become their main role. This means that if individual protesters chat to them, details of a conversation may end up on a Metropolitan Police database.


One a final note, at least the Met provided the information we asked for. A similar request to Sussex Police was refused. Despite the extensive use of PLTs at anti-fracking demonstrations in Balcombe and anti-fascist protests in Brighton, the force claims it has no agreed, formal policies, operational documents or standard operating procedures – a claim that lacks any credibility. Even if it is using national guidance produced by the College of Policing, Sussex Police is legally obliged to release this: the Freedom of Information Act covers information held by a public authority, not just data it creates or owns. Unfortunately, a similarly opaque response has been given by Thames Valley Police. NetPol is looking at taking this further with the Information Commissioner.

Meanwhile, NetPol is currently awaiting the outcome of an FoI request to the College of Policing, which is due in early November.

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