The public and professional undercover officers deserve more

Inconsistencies and shortcomings in policies, systems and training threaten the effectiveness of undercover officers, a report by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) revealed today.

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An inspection of undercover policing in England and Wales

The report, ‘An inspection of undercover policing in England and Wales’, is a response to a commission from the Home Secretary Theresa May in June 2013, for HMIC to inspect the effectiveness of the arrangements in place in all police forces to carry out, manage and scrutinise undercover operations.

HM Inspector Stephen Otter, who led the inspection, said:

“The public have a right to feel confident that this highly intrusive area of policing is being carried out in the most scrupulous way. Therefore, whilst we found that undercover officers were, in general, knowledgeable, professional and courageous, it was disappointing to find inconsistencies and shortcomings in the way undercover officers were supported by policies, systems and training across the country.

“Throughout our inspection, undercover officers were consistent in voicing their concerns about the ways in which forces required them to work differently from other forces and from what they understood from their training to be a nationally agreed way of working. This is clearly inefficient and, at worst, could lead to avoidable mistakes being made.

“We were concerned by a generally poor level of knowledge and lack of expertise of those senior leaders who authorise the use of undercover officers.  Although authorising officers were generally able to explain to us the information that they had used to justify authorities, there was an unacceptable variation in the quality of the written authorisations – often with insufficient detail provided.

“We also found that police forces have been slow to adapt undercover tactics to tackle the fast growing online threat, with some forces without any undercover online capability at all.

“Chief constables and the College of Policing need to ensure that the shortcomings set out in this report are promptly addressed.”

This is not the first time that issues concerning consistency in undercover policing have been highlighted.  The National Policing Improvement Agency (NPIA) reported in 2012 that there was inconsistency in selection, recruitment and training of undercover officers and made 55 recommendations.  The majority of these recommendations have still not been implemented by the police. 

One of these recommendations was that undercover officers should receive psychological support by appropriately qualified practitioners. This is still not happening in all forces.

HMIC’s inspection examined all police forces and law enforcement agencies that have the capability and capacity to deploy undercover officers and this is the first time that such an inspection has taken place.

The report makes a total of 49 recommendations across policies, systems, training and leadership of undercover operations which, if implemented, should address the unacceptable inconsistencies and shortcomings that we found.

This inspection by HMIC was not an inquiry into past events but examines how well undercover policing is carried out now. There are three other pieces of work which either have examined or will examine aspects of undercover policing:

  • the Ellison Review examined allegations of corruption surrounding the investigation into the murder of Stephen Lawrence and whether the Metropolitan Police Service had evidence of corruption that it did not disclose to the public inquiry into Mr Lawrence’s death. The review was published in March 2014;
  • Operation Herne was set up by the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Service to investigate the allegations which had been made in the media regarding the conduct of undercover officers and has made three interim reports, the latest of which was in July 2014; and
  • the Home Secretary announced in Parliament on 6 March 2014 that a public inquiry, led by a judge, would be set up to investigate undercover policing and the operation of the Special Demonstration Squad.

Get the report

An inspection of undercover policing in England and Wales


  1. Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) is an independent inspectorate, inspecting policing in the public interest, and rigorously examines the efficiency and effectiveness of police forces to tackle crime and terrorism, improve criminal justice and raise confidence. HMIC inspects all 43 police forces in England and Wales, together with other major policing bodies.
  2. For further information, HMIC’s press office can be contacted during office hours from 8:30am – 5:00pm Monday – Friday on 020 3513 0600.
  3. HMIC’s out-of-hours press office line for urgent media enquiries is 07836 217 729.