Tag Archives: undercover police

A view from…an undercover cop – Part II

Honey traps

The most famous case of an Undercover Officer acting as an agent provocateur was the case of Colin Stagg and “Lizzie James”. On 15th July 1992, 23 year old Rachel Nickell was walking on Wimbledon Common with her then two year old son. Rachel was attacked in front of her son. She had her throat cut, was repeatedly stabbed and sexually assaulted. The attack caused a public outcry which placed a great deal of pressure on the Metropolitan Police to find the culprit as quickly as possible.

The investigation quickly centred on Colin Stagg, an unemployed man from Roehampton who was known to walk his dog on Wimbledon Common. There was no forensic evidence at the scene linking Stagg to the killing so the Police had a Criminal Psychologist draw up a profile of the suspect. On receiving the profile, the senior Officers involved in the case decided that the profile fitted Colin Stagg and with the assistance of the Criminal Psychologist they set up Operation Ezdell in an attempt to have Stagg either eliminate himself or admit the crime.

A female Undercover Officer Using the name “Lizzie James” made contact with Stagg. Over a 5 month period, “Lizzie James” feigned a romantic interest in Stagg and communicated with him in person, in writing and over the phone. Much of this contact carried from “Lizzie” contained violent sexual fantasies in an attempt to encourage Stagg to confess to the crime. Stagg professed some violent sexual fantasies of his own which he later claimed to have made up in an attempt to keep “Lizzie” interested.

The Police would later release a taped conversation between “Lizzie” and Stagg in which “Lizzie” claimed to enjoy hurting people, to which Stagg mumbled: “Please explain, as I live a quiet life. If I have disappointed you, please don’t dump me. Nothing like this has happened to me before.” When “Lizzie” went on to say “If only you had done the Wimbledon Common murder, if only you had killed her, it would be all right,” Stagg replied: “I’m terribly sorry, but I haven’t.” Despite this, Stagg was charged with the murder of Rachel Nickell.

When the case reached the point of trial at the Old Bailey, the trial Judge Justice Ognall ruled that the police had shown “excessive zeal” and had tried to incriminate a suspect by “deceptive conduct of the grossest kind”. He excluded the entrapment evidence and the prosecution withdrew its case. Stagg was formally acquitted in September 1994. This type of operation which was widely condemned in the press was described as being a “honey trap”. On 18th December 2008, Robert Napper pleaded guilty to Nickell’s manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility after a cold case review revealed new DNA evidence.

Although a “honey trap” operation was never declared illegal in an English Court, following on from this and other similar cases, it was decided by the Police and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) that “honey trap” operations would no longer be used. It was believed that the Colin Stagg case showed that in such an operation, the suspect could and would say whatever he or she felt was right under the circumstances to continue the relationship rather than tell the truth.

Can an undercover officer commit a crime?

Undercover Officers, are legally allowed to carry out criminal activities such as purchasing drugs however they are not supposed to take part in criminal enterprises whenever possible. This was not always straight forward. On one occasion an undercover Officer was waiting with a group of others all waiting to be dealt heroin from a dealer. The dealer did not want to spend his time dealing to a number of people and decided that he would deal to one person who could then deal to the rest of the group. The dealer unwittingly picked the undercover Officer who was forced to deal to the rest of the group. This was permissible as the Officer was acting in character and was not setting himself up as a dealer.

Finally, Undercover Officers have to be careful about how they speak to criminals they come across. Normally when the Police speak to or interview a suspect they are bound by the codes of practice laid out in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act of 1984 (PACE). PACE states that when a suspect is interviewed he or she should be cautioned and read his rights. Obviously Undercover Officers cannot do this so they have to work around that. They are not to lead conversations that would result in someone revealing information, however if the criminal reveals the information of their own free will that is fine.

Covert Ops

For the select few who manage to pass the initial training course and become qualified as undercover Officers there are regular continuation courses covering developments in role the and changes in legislation. Finally, there are specialist courses for certain roles to allow Officers to work on operations which would otherwise be out of the question. Undercover Officers have been known to train as art experts, vehicle mechanics, computer programmers amongst numerous other skills.

In between working undercover, Officers work in their usual Police role be that being a neighbourhood Officer, a Traffic Officer or any of the countless other roles that Officers carry out until they receive the phone call.

The planning of an undercover operation can take many months or even years depending on the operation. Once the need for an undercover operation arises, a Command Team is formed in co-operation with “Covert Ops” who oversee everything to do with undercover operations. The role of the Command Team is to oversee their operation and they are responsible for the planning of, the budget of and the non-undercover staffing of the operation.

The Command Team will be made up of a senior Officer who is in charge of the whole operation. There will also be Officers trained in and working in intelligence units to ensure that the all information is up to date. The final members of the Command Team are the Exhibits Officer who deals with every single piece of evidence and one or two “runners” who carry out all of the leg work such as transporting Officer and exhibits.

Once the Command Team have everything in place for the operation, they will go back to Covert Ops and after proving that they have everything in place, they will ask for undercover Officers and a Welfare Officer to be assigned. Occasionally, members of the Command Team will request specific undercover and Welfare Officers as they have previously worked with them however this is only ever a request and the final decision is out of their hands.

Within Covert Ops there is one dedicated Officer who has the sole responsibility of overseeing all undercover Officers. This Officer will know the details of each and every undercover Officer in their Force. They will know each Officer’s strengths and weaknesses including any individual Officer’s specialisms. This Officer also knows each Welfare Officer personally.

The role of the Welfare Officer is a vastly underrated one. The sole purpose of the Welfare Officer is to look after the undercover Officers no matter what happens. During any operation, the say of the Welfare Officer is final. No one in the world can overrule the decision of the Welfare Officer. If he or she believes that what is being asked of the undercover Officer is unsafe, not suitable or even just has a bad feeling, that is it. Nothing can happen on an operation without the go ahead from the Welfare Officer.

The Officer overseeing undercover Officers will meet with the chosen Welfare Officer to discuss the operation and prospective Officers. It is very common for operations to include Officers from other forces throughout the country to lessen the chance of the undercover Officer being recognised or his or her identity being discovered. As there is only one Officer in each Force responsible for undercover Officers, it is a small group who know each other well and a quick phone call will arrange the “loan” of an undercover Officer or two.

By Officer Z

See the final part soon.

Advertisements

A view from…an undercover cop – Part I

Popular misconceptions

ACPO’s (Association of Chief Police Officers) head of crime, Merseyside Chief Constable Jon Murphy, has said that undercover Officers play a critical role gathering evidence and intelligence to protect communities from harm. He also described undercover work as being one of the most challenging areas of operational policing. The question is what is it like to be an undercover Officer?

When it comes to undercover work there are a lot of misconceptions and confusion, much of which is the result of films and TV shows.

First and foremost is the belief that any Police Officer wearing plain clothes and who is not wearing a suit is working undercover. Police Officers working in specialist investigatory roles tend to wear more casual clothes such as jeans and t-shirts. There are a variety of reasons for this. One of the main ones is that they may be called to carry out surveillance or observations on a person or property at short notice and it is not practical for them to repeatedly change in and out of uniform.

Officers working undercover wear clothes to suit the role they are portraying. An Officer posing as a heroin user would stand out a mile if they were wearing a suit. Similarly, an Officer attempting to buy ten stolen iPads would not get very far dressed in a dirty old tracksuit that had not seen the inside of a washing machine for some time.

The next popular misconception is that any Officer can work undercover at the drop of a hat and work right next door to the Police Station where they are based. The first stage in becoming an undercover Officer is the assessment. The assessment comprises a number of interviews and role playing exercises to see how the Officer reacts to various circumstances. Everyone who is successful at the assessment progresses onto the initial training course.

The training course

For obvious reasons, the details of undercover courses are shrouded in secrecy. They are run by serving and ex-undercover Officers to an agreed national standard and are widely acknowledged as being the most difficult course any Police Officer can undergo.

The candidates on the course are put through a series of increasingly challenging situations. To ensure accuracy, the basis of each situation is a repetition of one that has happened in real life. Although this has the benefit of allowing the assessors to see how the candidates handle real life situations, the Officers running the course allow each situation to unfold naturally and react to the candidate’s actions.

Unfortunately for the candidates, the courses are run under “big boy’s rules” which means that there are no “safe words” to stop the exercise and on occasions, candidates have been known to suffer injuries after being assaulted or injured during the exercise. The people running the course act just like a criminal would in real life and if that includes resorting to physical violence then so be it. If the candidate cannot handle it in a training situation they will not be able to handle it in the real world.

In amongst the practical exercises, there are lengthy lessons on the legal aspects of being an undercover Officer. Although they work undercover, the Officers are still subject to the exact same laws as when they are working in uniform although undercover Officers have additional laws to work with such as acting as an agent provocateur which is something that regular officers do not have to even think about.

Most of the law in England and Wales falls into one of two categories: Statute law and common law. Statute law is law which has been compiled and passed by Parliament and is laid out for Judges to rule on. Common law has been handed down from the dawn of time and can come to exist through convention or judicial precedent. Examples of convention are the offences of murder and breach of the peace. The work of undercover officers is often affected by judicial precedent. This can often define what a word means and can only be over-ruled by a higher court. The main concern for undercover Officers are the rules covering entrapment and acting as an agent provocateur.

In short, they can act as criminals but cannot encourage the people are interacting with to carry out tasks they would not normally carry out themselves. The easiest way to explain it is to use an example of an undercover Officer trying to buy drugs.

The Officer cannot ask someone who supplies cannabis to supply heroin as this was not a drug they normally supply. To further confuse matters, the Officer has to ensure that they use the correct wording. Asking someone if they “have any heroin” is fine but asking if they “can get any” would mean that the Officer would be acting as an agent provocateur and encouraging the dealer to commit the offence of obtaining heroin to supply it to the Officer.

By Officer Z

See Part II here