In January, Inspector Steve Poppitt of the Cambridgeshire Constabulary spoke at the University of Cambridge Graduate Union to a small audience who wanted to ask the police about the covert surveillance of students. He said he was interested in improving relations between students and the police. ‘It has to be a dialogue,’ he said.
The meeting was called in response to the revelations last November that the police had tried to infiltrate student activist groups. This week, three campaigners have described attempts by the police to recruit them as informants on fellow political activists. One said he was offered an envelope full of cash at a supermarket. Another said he went to the police station to discuss a report he had made about two suspicious men on his street, and was instead offered money in return for information about left-wing protests. A member of Unite Against Fascism said that an officer tried to pay her to spy on the group, and warned her she could face prosecution if she told anyone she’d been approached.
One of the people at the meeting in January asked Inspector Poppitt how much of a threat the police thought Cambridge students were to society. ‘If you ask me to talk about any particular operational policing issue that involves the actual use of any sort of covert source that refers to a particular case, then obviously I decline to answer,’ Poppitt said.
‘Do you think students have a right to be upset at what happened? That they were spied on?’
A long pause. ‘You have a right to be upset about a lot of things.’
‘What about being spied on by the police?’
‘If you want to be upset, then you’ve got a legitimate right to be upset.’
A student asked again about the threat that students posed to society. Poppitt replied that the police use three core principles to assess risk and formulate the appropriate police tactics: the facilitation of the peaceful use of public freedoms, the maintenance of public safety, and the prevention and detection of crime. The third time the question came up, Poppitt answered that some students were possibly dangerous ‘in the same way that three or four people I’ve encountered tonight walking from Park Side to here might be dangerous’.
‘Is there a reason that Cambridge students were surveilled?’
‘You’re not going find out anything that relates to any operational covert case from me.’
To a question about the ethics of using payment to persuade activists to become informants, Poppitt said: ‘There are specific protocols employed with regards to relationships between intelligence sources and those who handle them.’ This week’s allegations hint at what those protocols may be.