A public inquiry into undercover policing is poised to reveal details of how police repeatedly spied on black justice groups, including several run by grieving families whose relatives were killed by police or died in custody.
The judge-led inquiry was launched six years ago by the home secretary at the time, Theresa May, after the Guardian revealed police covertly monitored the campaign for justice over the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence.
The inquiry is due to scrutinise how the police spied on at least 17 other, mainly black, grieving families between 1970 and 2005. Many are high–profile cases that have been the source of tension between the Metropolitan police and minority communities for many years.
Among those spied on were the campaigns for justice over the death of Jean Charles de Menezes, the Brazilian electrician shot repeatedly in the head in 2005 by police after being mistaken for a suicide bomber, and Cherry Groce, whose shooting by police two decades earlier, in 1985, sparked the Brixton riots.
The latest disclosures will come after months of allegations about policing and race in modern-day Britain following the mass Black Lives Matter protests during which more than 250,000 people took to the streets.
The BLM protests and allegations of continuing police racism have led police chiefs to pledge a new race action plan, with polls showing widespread mistrust of policing within Britain’s black communities.
The inquiry, which is due to start hearing evidence on Monday, will scrutinise the deployment of nearly 140 undercover officers who spied on more than 1,000 political groups across more than four decades.
It will examine how police spies deceived women into long-term relationships and stole the identities of dead children in order to monitor and in some cases disrupt political campaigns, mostly on the left.
The sheer number of operations monitoring black justice campaigns, and the fact they were run for decades, could prove damaging to the Met at a febrile moment for the force.
Insp Andrew George, the president of the National Black Police Association, said the revelations expected at the inquiry would strain already difficult police and community relations. “It is going to have an impact on community confidence at a time when tensions are already heightened,” he said..
“Those campaigns [spied upon] were involved in civil rights movements, not criminal activity, so there was not a justification. The hurt of the past has to be acknowledged before it can be moved on from, before you can build trust and confidence. Trust and confidence is already low. It has been at crisis point this year.”
At least three undercover officers were tasked with monitoring people campaigning for justice for Lawrence, who was stabbed to death by racists in 1993. Police also monitored Duwayne Brooks, who was with Lawrence on the night of the murder. Six years later, a public inquiry into the bungled investigation into Lawrence’s murder famously concluded the Met was “institutionally racist”.
The undercover officers, as well as their commanding officers, are due to give evidence at the inquiry, which is being led by the retired judge Sir John Mitting.
The inquiry will also examine surveillance of those calling for justice for Joy Gardner, who died in 1993 after being bound and gagged by deportation officers, Ricky Reel, who died in 1997 after a clash with racists, and Michael Menson, who was burned to death in 1997 by a racist attacker who almost escaped justice because police said Menson had doused himself in petrol.
The whistleblower Peter Francis, an undercover officer who spied on anti-racist groups, has previously said his “lowest point” morally was attending a candlelit vigil outside Kennington police station in south London for the Brian Douglas justice campaign in 1995. Douglas, a boxing promoter, died after being struck on the head by a police baton.
Francis also indicated police monitored the justice campaigns of Shiji Lapite, a Nigerian asylum seeker who was asphyxiated after being put in a neck-hold in the back of a police van, and Ibrahima Sey from Ghana, who stopped breathing after being held face down for 15 minutes in a police station while handcuffed.
Undercover operations are understood to have targeted campaigners protesting over the death of Blair Peach, an anti-fascist activist who was killed by police in 1979.
Another early target of the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS), the secret unit created to plant undercover police spies deep undercover on political groups, was the movement against the apartheid regime in South Africa.
One of the first witnesses to take the stand will be an undercover officer codenamed HN345, who monitored anti-apartheid activists while using the alias Peter Fredericks in the early 1970s. “Fredericks” also spied on the black power movement.
His real identity is being withheld from the public after Mitting controversially approved a large number of applications from undercover officers who wanted their anonymity preserved. This has led to complaints from activists who say they will be unable to properly challenge the officers’ evidence.
“The lack of progress of this inquiry to date doesn’t give me confidence in its approach or its outcome. Far too little has happened in the six and half years since it was announced,” said Neville Lawrence, the father of Stephen Lawrence.
“I want a fully transparent inquiry which establishes what happened, why the Metropolitan police thought it appropriate to send undercover police to spy on me and my family following Stephen’s death, at a time when we were grieving and campaigning to make the police take Stephen’s murder seriously. I want to know what part institutional racism played in that decision.
“And I want the Metropolitan police to learn lessons from what they did, so it doesn’t happen to more families in the future.”
More than 200 witnesses, ranging from the undercover officers, their superiors, Whitehall officials and politicians, are due to give evidence to the inquiry, which is due to run until at least 2023. It will also hear evidence from those who were spied on, and explore the extent to which the Security Service, MI5, helped run the undercover operations.
Police chiefs are declining to say whether they are continuing to target political activists using the same undercover techniques. In a statement the National Police Chiefs Council said it was assisting the inquiry, adding: “it would be inappropriate to comment further”.