Connor Woodman, 2 April 2019

‘By what authority do we arrange our meetings, our committees, our working parties, and our study groups? By what authority do we absent ourselves from our Force areas to attend such meetings, and recharge our expenses to the local authority? By what authority do we attend conferences?’

ACPO, ‘Policing Arrangements of the National Union of Mineworkers Dispute’, 1986

The undercover infiltration of over dozens of political groups in the UK was carried out by two known police units. From 1968, the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS) focused on London-based organisations, operating under the Metropolitan Police’s Special Branch. From 1999, a nation-wide unit was set up, the National Public Order Intelligence Unit (NPOIU). This latter unit was created and controlled by the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO).

Thus far, little is known about the motivation and context for the establishment of the NPOIU. Having folded in 2015, ACPO’s historical archive is now available at the Hull History Centre. The records deepen our understanding of the NPOIU, demonstrating senior police officers’ growing concern at the inability of the fragmented English and Welsh police service to deal with national public disorder in the 1970s and 1980s, from riots to strikes. This concern over the lack of police intelligence and coordination at a nation level, necessary to combat the grassroots insurgencies of the time, was the driving motivation for the establishment of the NPOIU at the end of the 1990s.

This series charts ACPO’s increasingly prevalent role in national political public order policing in the late 20th century – culminating in the founding of the NPOIU and the expansion of the undercover infiltration apparatus in 1998.

What was ACPO?

For most of the post-WWII era, ACPO was the primary national body bringing together chief police officers from across the 40+ police forces in England and Wales. All officers above the rank of Chief Superintendent (or equivalent) became members of ACPO. The organisation – a private corporation rather than a public body – shared information, organised training programmes and developed strategies for defeating threats to what is called ‘public order’.

Although founded in 1948, ACPO largely remained out of the public eye until the 1984-5 Miners’ Strike, when it played a vital role in coordinating police reinforcements to counter-act picket lines. The Association also received criticism after its Public Order Manual of Tactical Options and Related Matters, a set of riot-control tactics which were operationalised during the Miners’ Strike, was leaked in the early 1980s.

ACPO’s increase in publicity and influence emerged at the same time as chief constables took a more proactive role in social and political debates in the 1970s and 1980s, partly in response to the political radicalism of the time.[1] ACPO provided an vehicle through which chief police officers’ collective desires could be realised on a national stage. Rather than signalling the emergence of a national police force, ACPO was a way of ensuring a national voice and coordinating body for the police whilst preserving the independence and power of individual chief constables.

According to one academic study, ACPO ‘exercised extensive influence over policing policies of local police forces’,[2] even spawning and destroying governmental policies. The Association helped establish a coordinating committee for European interior ministers in 1976;[3] wrecked Labour’s mid-1970s proposals to reform picketing law; transformed public order policing nation-wide through the Public Order Manual; and was responsible for the genesis of New Labour’s infamous 90-day detention policy in the 2000s.

For most of its existence, ACPO represented both the interests of its individual members, and those of the police service as a whole. In 1996, the professional association wing of the organisation was separated from ACPO and given independence as the Chief Police Officers’ Staff Association.[4] ACPO’s wider function as a representative of the entire police service is important: it helps explain the role the institution played in strategising and enacting an agenda for the state apparatus.

By the time it was closed down, ACPO had over 300 working groups, including the ACPO Terrorism and Allied Matters committee, which eventually housed and oversaw the National Public Order Intelligence Unit.

The 2013 Parker Review, noting a perception that ACPO’s status as a private company was ‘not consistent with a national institution acting in the public interest’, recommended that a chief police officers’ organisation be given a formal statutory basis. Accordingly, ACPO was shut down and the National Police Chiefs Council was formed in 2015.

The archive

The ACPO archive at the Hull History Centre has been heavily filtered: the 556-page ACPO archive catalogue contains only one mention of any of the known political policing units. At no point in any of the documents is the Special Demonstration Squad mentioned by name.

In response to a 2014 Freedom of Information request, ACPO stated that its records would be made public ‘after weeding’. As documented by Ian Cobain in The History Thieves, massive weeding, redaction and destruction of ‘sensitive’ records is a routine occurrence across the British state. Departments hire full time ‘Sensitivity Reviewers’, often former members of the department, whose job it is to comb through records and withhold or destroy those considered too delicate for public viewing. As a private company, ACPO may well have been subject to even less documentary regulation than formal branches of the state. All this must be taken into account when reading the following articles: they are a partial account, likely to miss major events and processing going on within the police and beyond. They are intended to extract what information and conclusions can be drawn from the available documentation.

Nonetheless, the archive contains some useful records relating to the social movements of the late 1960s, the industrial struggles of the 1970s and 1980s, the early 1980s riots. And it highlights ACPO’s subsequent role in crafting a national public order response through training, guidelines and – most importantly for our purposes – a national public order intelligence system. These documents help explain the police thinking which contributed to the establishment of the NPOIU in 1999.

Table of content

ACPO and the emergence of national political intelligence

Also see: ACPO in the Hull Archive – files overview

Read in more detail about the formation of the unit in the 1999-2000 NPOIU files.  

Connor Woodman carried out this research whilst the 2017/18 Amiel & Melburn Trust Research Fellow, hosted by the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies. Connor is the author of the Spycops in Context publications, analysing the undercover policing of political groups. Thank you to the Hull History Centre and Jim Townsend for their assistance during the research phase of this project.


[1] Loader, I., & Mulcahy, A. (2001), ‘The power of legitimate naming: Part I—chief constables as social commentators in post-war England’, British Journal of Criminology, 41(1), p.48.

[2] Savage, S. P., Charman, S., & Cope, S. (1996), ‘Police governance, the Association of Chief Police Officers and constitutional change’, Public Policy and Administration, 11(2), p.95.

[3] Bunyan, T. (1991), ‘Towards an authoritarian European state’, Race & Class32(3), p.21.

[4] Charman, S., & Savage, S. (1998), ‘Singing from the same hymn sheet: The professionalisation of the Association of Chief Police Officers’, International Journal of Police Science & Management, 1(1), p.10.

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