Exposé of ex-spycop Andy Coles raises questions
A fortnight ago, a coordinated effort across blogs, the Guardian and Channel 4 News saw the release of comprehensive material establishing that Peterborough Councillor and Deputy Commissioner of Police and Crime for Cambridgeshire, Andy Coles, was formerly an undercover officer with disgraced unit, the Special Demonstration Squad. In interviews, his ex-partner, ‘Jessica’ told of how she was groomed and deceived into a relationship. This led to his resignation as Deputy Commissioner several days later, but questions are still being asked.
One such question is how much he told his boss, the Commissioner for Police and Crime, Jason Ablewhite. When we asked the Commissioner’s Office for a comment, they referred us to their statement of 15th May, which boiled down to, it would be inappropriate to say anything, as it has been referred to the Independent Police Complaints Commission’. A spokesperson for the IPCC, told us:
We have received a referral from the Office of the Police and Crime Commissioner for Cambridgeshire. We are currently assessing that referral to determine the level of IPCC involvement required, if any.
When contacted, local political parties either declined to respond or said it would be inappropriate to comment while legal proceedings are ongoing, though his fellow Tory councillor, John Holdrich, told Peterborough Today:
Cllr Coles I have found is a man of great integrity and maintains my full confidence. We owe a lot to men and women who work undercover to keep us safe.
However, individuals affected by the spycop scandals including some who experienced his attitude to women during his time undercover, have told us directly that he should step down from his public positions given the seriousness of the matter. Something echoed extensively on Twitter. It was also noted that nobody has yet to issue any kind of denial. ‘Shirley’, one of the activists targeted by Coles, told us:
It is offensive to say this man has any integrity. It is not just one woman he groomed; numerous female activists were targeted during his time undercover in gross, unacceptable ways. It was a systematic attack on us by a man who knew that whatever happened he had the backing of Special Branch and the Metropolitan Police. Even before we get to the outrage of him lying about his identity, his unjustifiable behaviour towards women means he needs to step down as councillor.
In the meantime, the exposure holds its own issues for the Pitchford Inquiry and the Metropolitan Police. Suspicions relating to his undercover identity have circulated publicly for the last three years, a time during which he has been publicly prominent. Hence, a question being asked is on what basis would it have been reasonable to withhold his details, and if there is none, why has it not been done by now?
The actual restriction orders applications over the release of cover names of officers who served with the controversial undercover units have yet to be heard. However, it is unlikely now that the exposure Coles will not feature in the arguments over the criteria used.
One key issue the exposure raises is that this ex-undercover held positions in public life, including positions requiring levels of probity. With Jessica stating she was effectively groomed by an older man lying about his identity and age, this is particularly pertinent. It is hard to see how the Inquiry could rule it against the public interest to reveal both his cover name and full identity, or demonstrate how justice could have been done there if his details had been withheld. Indeed, his rapid resignation is testament to the power of that public interest.
If he had never been exposed, the situation could have been considerably different. It is as yet unknown whether intelligence reports around Andy Coles ever mentioned his relationship with ‘Jessica’, a fact for the Inquiry to consider. And it is highly unlikely that his attempts to force himself on other female activists were reported. It was only when he was confirmed as an undercover that those so affected were able to come together and the full picture finally come to light.
A second aspect is that Coles was open about his role as trainer in counter-terrorism for the same body that oversaw the NPOIU spycop unit. It is possible, though not proven, that he may have provided training for NPOIU undercovers. He is certainly a link that the Inquiry ought to be exploring. However, Coles’ openness about such positions makes it harder for the police to use the ‘sensitive nature’ of subsequent career paths of undercovers as a de facto reason for protecting their identities. The force of any police arguments around that point have had a bit of their thunder stolen from them.
Thus, while the Inquiry and the Metropolitan Police dithered, the activists investigating the case stole a pretty serious march on them. None of the future applications for restriction orders over the release of identities, cover and real, can now ignore the markers set down by the Andy Coles case.