How Britain’s Spy Cops Targeted Grieving Families

From the 1970s to the 2000s, Britain's undercover police surveilled at least 20 families seeking justice for lost loved ones – including those who died at the hands of the police themselves.

As the Spy Cops Inquiry rolls on, the headlines about abuses committed by undercover officers continue to proliferate. What’s often left out is the sheer scale of these operations. Though a full list is yet to be released, hundreds of groups were infiltrated by intelligence-gathering officers in the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS), ranging from animal rights organisations and socialist political parties to trade unions, anti-war, and anti-apartheid campaigners, MPs like Diane Abbott, and even the youth wing of the Liberal Party. Any left-wing group—and from 1973 to 1982, it was exclusively left wing groups—even somewhat critical of the police or the government was a potential target.

Alongside broader political causes, at least twenty campaigns set up to achieve justice for those who had suffered a wrongful death were spied and reported on by undercover police. Eleven of them were specifically about deaths at the hands of police officers or in police custody. The intention, it can broadly be assumed, was finding and sharing intimate details of the families’ personal lives in order to undermine their causes.

These events, perhaps, are where the callous self-interest of the police spying operations is most evident. Nowhere does the ‘public interest’ defence often used to justify undercover activity feel more nauseating.

Blair Peach

Born in New Zealand 1946, Blair Peach was a lifelong activist. After escaping compulsory military service at home as a result of his ‘unsuitable character’, he emigrated to the UK where he became a teacher at Phoenix, a school for children with learning disabilities in East London. While working in the UK he joined the National Union of Teachers, the Socialist Workers’ Party, and the Anti-Nazi League. His activism made him a constant target of the police, and on one occasion he was arrested for protesting a local bar that refused to serve ethnic minorities.

At the time, the diverse borough of Southall was a target for the National Front and had been the site of the racist murder of Gurdip Singh Chaggar just a few years earlier. While protesting a National Front town meeting in the borough on 24 April 1979, Peach was attacked and beaten by a group of six police officers called in to disperse the crowd. Several hours later, he had died.

Despite 14 witnesses seeing him get struck on the head by an officer, no-one was ever charged for the death. The Cass Report, an internal Met investigation from the time, concluded one of their officers had almost certainly struck the killing blow, but was only made public thirty-one years later.

Within just two months of the death, undercover officers of the Special Demonstration Squad infiltrated campaigns to get justice for Blair Peach. They even sent undercover officers to Peach’s funeral to photograph and make a list of attendees. A particular target was Celia Stubbs, Peach’s partner, who is said to have spent twenty years under police surveillance.

Stephen Lawrence

The tragedy of Stephen Lawrence’s death is etched into the history of modern Britain. Stephen was born in Greenwich in 1974, to Neville and Doreen Lawrence, then a carpenter and special needs teacher, respectively, and became a typical teenager with dreams of becoming an architect.

He was 18 when, while waiting to get home at the bus stop on 22 April 1993, a gang of white youths attacked and stabbed him multiple times in a racially motivated attack. He died later that night.

In 1999, the Macpherson Report on police conduct during the case concluded the officers involved in the case were not only incompetent, having failed to offer first aid at the scene and missed chances to arrest suspects, but also ‘institutionally racist’. It was a further twelve years before any of his killers would be convicted.

During that wait, the Lawrence family were subject to a targeted campaign by the police. Peter Francis, a former undercover officer and then major whistleblower on the Spy Cops scandal, described how he was ordered to try and find dirt on the family in order to stop the Justice for Stephen Lawrence Campaign, even sharing information he heard about the parents’ marriage.

He was also part of a concerted effort to discredit Duwayne Brooks, a friend of Stephen’s, who was there the night he died. Brooks was arrested in 1993 as a result, although a judge later threw out the case.

Jean Charles de Menezes

The son of bricklayer, Jean Charles de Menezes left his rural Brazilian home after discovering an aptitude for electronics, making powered toys as a child using old batteries, scrap copper, and matchboxes. He moved to the UK from Brazil to work as an electrician and sent money back to his ageing father in Brazil.

Just weeks after the 7/7 terrorist attacks in 2005, de Menezes left his London flat to fit a fire alarm. Police suspected another building resident, for whom they mistook de Menezes, of being a terrorist. He was followed by several officers to Stockwell tube station, where he was pinned down and shot seven times in the head.

In the aftermath, the Met lied to the public about the circumstances of his killing, claiming de Menezes had been given warnings by officers. No-one was ever prosecuted for his death, which was overseen by the current Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick, although the force was fined for breaching health and safety laws.

While the full nature of police action is still unrevealed, the Met has admitted that Special Branch officers collected information on the De Menezes Family Campaign in the aftermath of his death. As a spokesperson for the family put it: ‘We can only assume they were gathering information in an attempt to discredit the family’s campaign for justice in order to deflect accountability for their own failings.’ The family have also alleged that on multiple occasions the police tried to smear de Menezes after his death, including leaking to the press what proved to be a false rape charge.

Ricky Reel

Family members say that 20-year-old Ricky Reel, who was studying at Brunel University, was always a ‘cheeky’ kid – the first to help his father, a carpenter, with DIY around the house.

On a night out in October 1997, Reel and a group of friends were attacked by a racist gang shouting ‘p**is go home’. He and his friends were separated as they fled, and the friends were later unable to find him. When his family tried to report him missing, an officer suggested he might have run away because he wanted to escape an arranged marriage, or because he was gay, before winking at them.

A week later, his body was found in the Thames. Despite testimony about the racist attack, police insisted he had died accidentally while urinating—a  theory based solely on the fact his fly was down—and ignored evidence of blunt force trauma and the fact he was found to have fallen into the river backwards. Reel’s family spent years after his death pushing for a proper investigation and were consistently rejected by police.

During that time, Sukhdev Reel, his mother, was spied and reported on by undercover police officers. While Sukhdev was begging the police to reopen the investigation, the SDS was focused on spending time and money logging details of her activities—from petitions presented and vigils attended to undisclosed details of her private life—in ten secret reports. The police have since admitted to her that the surveillance was ‘inappropriate’, but reportedly refused to explain in more detail as to why.

Lasting Legacy

This list is anything but complete; countless more families were spied on by the police across decades – including those of Wayne Douglas, Cherry Groce, and Michael Menson.

Let’s be clear here: none of the families or friends that the police spied on or undermined were suspected of a crime. It’s been reported that even investigations into the actions of Special Branch acknowledged they ‘served no purpose in preventing crime or disorder’. What they did was attempt to prevent any activity that might draw attention to the brutality enacted by the agents of the state – to undermine and smear those whose experiences at the hands of the investigating officers’ own colleagues were inconvenient.

This is the system that the Spy Cops Bill, passed earlier this year by an increasingly authoritarian government and enabled by a supine opposition, seeks to legimitise – a system that works to protect itself from the truth, rather than protecting any of us from danger.