Behaviour of undercover police raises question of informed consent

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In Jan. 2011, the Guardian published an article which dealt with the issue of undercover police officers forming sexual relationships with activists as a tactic to maintain their cover. This issue was uncovered once an activist group based in the United Kingdom discovered that one of their members, known as Mark Stone, was actually Mark Kennedy — a police spy who had been sent to infiltrate their group seven years prior.

Since then, several other cases have been uncovered, with police officers living undercover for years, developing long-term relationships with the individuals they were investigating.

As of Dec. 2011, eight women have started taking legal action against the metropolitan police chiefs for assault, deceit, negligence and misfeasance in public office. These eight women, who have requested to keep their names out of the media, were all involved in a long-term, romantic relationships with undercover policemen, with some relationships lasting up to nine years.

In the legal papers, the women point to five men in situations originating as early as 1987 until 2010, some of whom were married under their real identities.

Since Mark Kennedy’s initial uncloaking to the media in early 2011, the police chiefs have denied that sex between undercover officers and activists was officially sanctioned and have stated that such behaviour is “never acceptable” and was “grossly unprofessional.” However, given the mounting evidence, including statements from Kennedy saying it was necessary for him to have sex in order to maintain his cover, it is difficult to believe that the police chiefs would have been unaware of these relationships.

As the case unfolds, many arguments have been brought forward both in support and in protest of the women’s situation. In a BBC interview with Harriet Wistrich, the lawyer representing the eight women, her interviewer essentially dismissed the women’s claims by saying:

“But don’t women go into … any relationship with a man in the same way? You always have at the back of your mind whether that man is telling the truth. I reckon you speak to any woman who is listening to this show now, they’ll all have dated some man who was a bit of liar. And nobody sues them, do they?” Wistrich quite rightly notes that this is more than just a case stemming from hurt feelings.

The unknown factors that come with the average new relationship are vastly different from unknowingly starting a relationship with an individual who is funded by the state to investigate you. In this case, the fact that the officers presented themselves under false identities makes it impossible for the women to give informed consent, which justifies the women’s claim for assault. Kennedy’s argument that it was necessary for him and others like him, to have sex with the women in the activist group in order to both maintain his cover and obtain information is irrelevant and is merely a botched attempt at justifying an abuse of power and public office.

As well, it speaks to the blatant disrespect the police force can have for the emotional and physical lives of individuals in activist groups.

With the scenes from the G20 protests forever locked in our memories, it is clear that police power and authority is something that must be continuously questioned and examined. Regardless of whether or not the undercover officers’ actions were officially sanctioned, it is clear that an investigation into the procedure of undercover police work is in order.

While there is speculation that the police chiefs will try to settle outside of court in order to avoid having to reveal the inner workings of undercover police work to the judiciary, I can only hope that this situation will lead the police force, both in the UK and right here in Canada, to re-examine their approach to their investigative work, acknowledging that sex between an undercover officer and his/her target is never necessary and always reprehensible.


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