The lack of mental health support for undercover officers

Eveline Lubbers, 12 January 2016

Undercover police officers working for the Special Demonstration Squad, a unit within Special Branch monitoring political activists experienced psychological distress or even mental health problems because of the pressures of their job.

For a long time, the solution to mentally unwell officers was to have a good drink with the lads down at the pub. This is confirmed by SDS officers Rob Evans and Paul Lewis talked to privately for their book Undercover, including one who said that when he was deployed in the 1970s, operatives who complained were considered wimps and risked being thrown off the squad.

This tough-guys-attitude is illustrated by this much-quoted section from the SDS Tradecraft Manual, a rough collection of tips and tricks put together by the undercover unit over the years:

(Update: in March 2018 a less-redacted version of the SDS Tradecraft Manual was released)

For many years the SDS, founded in 1968, had no safeguards in place to protect the mental welfare of their operatives and hardly paid any attention to the long-term psychological consequences of spending half a decade living a double life.

If officers would have had regular access to psychologists to assess their mental state, maybe problems could have been picked up at an earlier stage. One wonders if the police chiefs learned from previous cases, and if there was ever any improvement to the procedures.

What the documents reveal

The SDS Welfare Policy files reveal the unit’s efforts over the years to come up with a strategy to deal with the stress of undercover policing and why they did so. Though heavily redacted, the four successive drafts of the SDS Welfare Policy paper show what issues arose, while the intermittent correspondence details internal conflicts within the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) and frustrations about the lack of funding for psychological support for SDS officers. (SDS is best known as Special Demonstration Squad, while in the period covered here, 2000 – 2005, the acronym stood for Special Duty Section.)

The first two drafts of the policy paper from 2001 have an overview of the history of the SDS and the welfare problems to date, missing in later versions. Most of the three-and-half pages are redacted, but they do include a [redacted] estimate of the number of undercover officers deployed in the then 32-years of the SDS’ existence, adding that prior to the formal founding of the unit in November 1968, a variable pool of between [redacted] officers was already infiltrating political groups. The paper includes analysis of the careers of the undercover officers traceable at that moment in time, redacted in our version, but something that might provide a starting point for the Pitchford Inquiry into undercover policing of activist groups.

This early draft also addresses the instances where an undercover tour of duty was ‘directly or implicitly attributed to early departure from the Police Service’ – though further details have been blacked out.

Also absent from the later versions is a section making the case that stress should not be treated as a wholly negative factor.

A bit of background

That the need for a more structured form of mental support only emerged in the early 2000s should come as no surprise. Peter Francis ended his undercover tour of duty in September 1997 and says that he argued internally that his infiltration of anti-racist groups should be disclosed to the public inquiry headed by Sir William Macpherson into the police failures to find the killers of Stephen Lawrence – his superiors refused. (Years later, in 2014, his claims as a whistleblower that he had been instructed to find dirt on the Lawrence family pushed Theresa May to announce the Pitchford Inquiry.)

In April 2001, Francis was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and deemed unfit to serve any further. In their book Undercover, where he figures as Pete Black, Evans and Lewis report that the Met retired him and gave him a pension at the age of 36. Together with another former undercover officer who had also developed PTSD, Francis launched legal action against the Met about his treatment which settled in 2006 with undisclosed compensation. Of the ten SDS officers Francis served alongside, six experienced psychological issues. The SDS dismissed this claim, saying the fact that the other officers had returned to work after their deployment proved there was no wider problem. Not long after, three more former SDS officers left the Met. One retrained as a teacher, another emigrated to Canada to work as a lumberjack, while a third transferred to a force outside London, hoping for a quieter life.

Before Francis, undercover officer Mike Chitty had been subject to a long internal investigation when it was discovered he was returning to his activist friends following the end of his tour of duty. He sought counsel from another former undercover who had threatened to go public and had since ended up as an hotelier in Scotland. In 1995 Chitty took legal action against the Metropolitan Police claiming £50,000 in personal injuries and losses because of ‘psychiatric affects resulting from the stress of his police duties between 1982 and 1992. He accused the police of negligence and stated it failed to monitor, support, counsel and care for him during and after those duties’, Evans and Lewis wrote in Undercover. The case was dropped in 1995; Chitty was awarded an ill-health pension and moved to South Africa.

Minimising the potential for litigation

The document summarising the development of the SDS Welfare Policy shows that at first the SDS did not think regular psychiatric examinations were needed for their undercover officers, even though a 1996 HMIC report recommended regular 6-monthly evaluations for SO10 undercovers operating in the criminal field. When the MPS Occupational Health department brought it up again in 2000, the psychiatrist used by the SDS on an on-and-off basis until then warned against ‘over-psychiatrising people’s problems’. Asking the field officers what problems they had experienced seemed a better idea.

It is clear from the documents that implementing a sufficient welfare policy is motivated as much by minimising the potential for litigation by former officers with serious mental health problems as a result of their undercover tour, as by the actual need for support:

At a certain point, when the need for counselling seems more accepted within the SDS, the argument shifts towards the lack of cooperation of Occupational Health and the issue of who has to pay for the support. The SDS accuses the MPS of not treating psychiatric support seriously.

Exit strategies – return to normal

Problems occurred when officers had to return to normal, to home life and to regular desk jobs. The Welfare Policy paper suggests that sometimes officers were not informed when and where they were supposed to turn up, while the advise that the line manager should be notified in advance ‘to make sure that his/her attendance is expected’ implies that at occasions former undercovers would arrive at their first day at an office job after a long period of leave and nobody knew they were coming.

Problems at home were ignored at first, and not properly addressed as far as can be judged from redacted documents. At an early meeting in 2000, the rising number of self-referrals for counselling from former SDS officers was still dismissed as ‘related to domestic issues and not specific SDS operations’ .

The first drafts of the Welfare Policy paper do indeed acknowledge repeated domestic problems, but not beyond the negative effects of the extended period of leave immediately following field operations. ‘Domestic arrangements undergo a sea-change over that period’, is something of an understatement for cases where absent partners returned to wives and families after the best part of five years undercover.

Sexual relationships

Though the SDS considers the stability of the relationship at home as a ‘key factor in an individual’s ability to deal with stress’, the section on ‘Potential negative effects’ does not seem to address the fact that officers may have had one or more sexual relationships whilst undercover, and how this would affect their domestic situation.

One of the very few documents that did contain some advice on undercover sexual relationships is the 1995 version of the SDS Tradecraft Manual. Unfortunately, the version released through FoI requests remained so heavily redacted that only one sentence on this issue survives:

In fact – strangely enough – one of the internal police reviews into the undercover policing scandal contains more detail of what is contained in the SDS Tradecraft Manual than is revealed in the actual document itself. In March 2014, Operation Herne published the results of an investigation into the allegations of Peter Francis, the former undercover officer turned whistleblower. The Report cites the Tradecraft Manual as evidence providing ‘informal tacit authority and guidance for officers faced with the prospect of a sexual relationship.’

– Little or no support was in place to prevent or avoid such compromises for officers who were sometimes deployed and hugely isolated for many years. The internal ‘Tradecraft’ document references concerns that officers were effectively operating in isolation. Ambiguous advice regarding sexual relationships was offered.
– Potentially confusing guidance was provided in order to advise and assist officers. It is believed that this guidance was not any type of official MPS policy, but was rather some form of tactical advice developed dynamically by operatives within the unit and based on their own experiences. (p.70)

Under close inspection, the Herne Report is quite revealing – for instance, though leaning toward compassion for the working conditions of the undercover officers, it fails to acknowledge that serious relationships had been taking place and ignores the consequences for the women involved. (It would take another 18 months and considerable legal pressure from the women involved before the Metropolitan Police would issue an unreserved apology as part of a settlement arrangement that acknowledged that ‘these relationships were a violation of the women’s human rights, an abuse of police power and caused significant trauma.’)

Psychological Strains

The released copies of the Welfare Policy are also heavily redacted, and from what still can be read the paper is an effort more than anything else to prevent problems that have occurred previously. Stories that have come out via whistle-blower Peter Francis and the former undercover officers Evans and Lewis talked to (mentioned above) show that SDS operations have caused many serious mental health problems – but not much was put in writing and even less has been archived. The SDS had a culture averse to paperwork.

The available notes and letters written while working on the successive versions of the policy papers are only slightly more revealing as to the issues the SDS was dealing with. Based on the debriefings of two officers [names redacted], the SDS psychiatrist listed the various psychological stages undercovers can experience: Self – hysteria – disassociation – paranoid – obsessional – thinking – humour. 

At the same meeting, the SDS trying to reassure [the SDS psychiatrist, name redeacted] that it had suitable process in place:

Notes from another meeting with Occupational Health stressed that ‘loss’ was potentially the biggest burden former SDS officers had to deal when finishing their tours of duty.

While the London-based SDS was working on their Welfare policy in the early 2000s, a similar unit had been set up to cover the rest of the country, the National Public Order Intelligence Unit (NPOIU). The SDS asked to see their welfare policy. The NPOIU answer is interesting. It states that their policy is closely aligned to the SO10 policy for undercover officers operating in the criminal field, but identifies some important differences relative to the specific dangers of infiltration activist groups:

... and the danger that undercovers are exposed too!

What came of it?

It is unclear if the last version of the SDS Welfare Policy of March 2002, released to Rob Evans, is indeed the final version. A File Note dated 12 December 2001 lists the arrangements to come into effect at the first of January 2002: these include counselling at least every six months, a debrief, and unlimited additional counselling, including for office staff and those close to the undercover officers. No agreement on who pays for the support has been reached by May that year, a pressing issue as Occupational Health had refused to contribute and the costs were being met by the SDS Operational Expenses budget. The Summary document notes that an agreement was reached subsequently that the costs would be provided from central Special Branch funds. A funding request in December 2003 to evaluate a system of support was refused.

The SDS folded in 2008, while its twin, the NPOIU, continued to exist at a national level. Whether the new unit protected the welfare of its officers any better remains to be seen. Mark Kennedy, the undercover officer deployed by the NPOIU to infiltrate the environmental movement for seven years, claimed the welfare policy was still a mess. He has said

I was supposed to get psychological counselling every three months. I would go two years without seeing the shrink. Initially meetings were regular. Then it became a farce. The office was so greedy for intelligence that they didn’t set up the meetings. They went by the wayside. I’m sure that’s the same for other undercover officers too.


Also see: SDS Welfare Policy – all files.
released in March 2018, a less-redacted version of the SDS Tradecraft Manual 

Further reading:

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