Striking the right balance between secrecy and accountability when undercover policing goes wrong

February 9, 2018, University of Warwick

Media coverage of alleged historic misconduct by undercover police officers has led to the creation of a public inquiry into undercover policing. The inquiry has highlighted the tension between accountability and secrecy when mistakes have been made.

In a new paper published in the current issue of Criminal Justice Ethics, Dr. Katerina Hadjimatheou of the Interdisciplinary Ethics Research Group, part of the University of Warwick Department of Politics and International Studies, tests some of the arguments used by the police to defend secrecy in the face of calls for disclosure, and explores whether and when the veil of secrecy should be lifted if undercover operations go wrong.

Established legal opinion is that decisions about disclosure should be made on the balance on interest on a case-by-case basis. Police and other Government agencies have preferred a kneejerk 'Neither Confirm Nor Deny' (NCND) stance, relying on two arguments identified by Dr. Hadjimatheou. They are:

  • Scappaticci – the risk that confirming, or denying, an undercover officer's identity would put him, or another, at direct risk of harm. Freddie Scappaticci was named in the British press as IRA informer Stakeknife, and, in fear for his life, asked the UK Government to deny the allegation
  • Mosaic Effect – the risk that revealing any feature or aspect of an undercover operation will, when combined with information already held by criminals, 'complete the mosaic.'

Dr. Hadjimatheou critically examines whether these carry sufficient weight to justify a blanket NCND policy, particularly in the context of the public inquiry.

She finds that neither argument justifies a blanket refusal to provide information, and concludes that to ensure a fair balance between accountability and secrecy, police should undertake risk assessments for each case in which disclosure is requested: "case by case risk assessments provide objective reasons for secrecy in the face of legitimate requests for disclosure."

Dr. Hadjimatheou said: "My aim was to improve the clarity and rigour of the debate by critically examining the arguments used by the police to justify a blanket NCND policy.

"Accountability, trust and legitimacy are central to the British tradition of policing by consent. Secrecy can be justified if it protects the public interest in effective undercover policing. But it can also be used to conceal failings, misconduct, and abuse of power. In a democracy, the afforded to the must be rendered accountable.

"Accountability does not require of all information held by the state. But it does require objective reassurance that there are good reasons by information should be protected or concealed, and this is what the assessment is designed to provide."

Explore further: Pre-emptive policing is harmful and oppressive, and requires independent scrutiny

More information: Katerina Hadjimatheou. Neither Confirm nor Deny: Secrecy and Disclosure in Undercover Policing, Criminal Justice Ethics (2018). DOI: 10.1080/0731129X.2018.1424756

Related Stories

Do consent decrees adequately address police misconduct?

May 23, 2017

In recent years, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) has forced reform in police departments through the consent decree process, in which departments have agreed to take specific actions without admitting fault or guilt.

New federal requirements on cellphone surveillance

September 3, 2015

Federal law enforcement officials will be routinely required to get a search warrant before using secretive and intrusive cellphone-tracking technology under a new Justice Department policy announced Thursday.

Baby orangutans rescued in Thai police sting

December 24, 2016

Thai police rescued two baby orangutans in a sting operation after undercover officers arranged to buy the primates over a mobile phone messaging app from wildlife traffickers for nearly $20,000, officials said.

US pushing local police to be mum on surveillance

June 12, 2014

The Obama administration has been quietly advising local police not to disclose details about surveillance technology they are using to sweep up basic cellphone data from entire neighborhoods, The Associated Press has learned.

Recommended for you

Unprecedented study of Picasso's bronzes uncovers new details

February 17, 2018

Musee national Picasso-Paris and the Northwestern University/Art Institute of Chicago Center for Scientific Studies in the Arts (NU-ACCESS) have completed the first major material survey and study of the Musee national Picasso-Paris' ...

Humans will actually react pretty well to news of alien life

February 16, 2018

As humans reach out technologically to see if there are other life forms in the universe, one important question needs to be answered: When we make contact, how are we going to handle it? Will we feel threatened and react ...

Using Twitter to discover how language changes

February 16, 2018

Scientists at Royal Holloway, University of London, have studied more than 200 million Twitter messages to try and unravel the mystery of how language evolves and spreads.


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.