The Special Demonstration Squad was a secret unit within the Metropolitan Police’s Special Branch. Formed in 1968, around a dozen officers at a time would be deployed deep undercover in political groups. They would generally stay for about four years, living the life of activists.
It was not focused on terrorist groups, which fell under the remit of the Anti Terrorism Unit. Neither was it concerned with gathering evidence for use in court, and indeed many of the people and groups did not breach any laws.
Instead, the SDS committed itself to intelligence gathering, amassing information on groups and steering their direction. Much of their work was effectively counter-democratic. Officers were authorised to commit minor crime and many made a personality trait of encouraging activists into more serious activity.
They infiltrated and/or monitored, among others; trade unions, peace campaigns, animal rights groups, socialists, environmentalists, anti-apartheid groups, far-right groups, far-left groups, anti-fascists, anti-capitalists and the justice campaigns of bereaved families. Political parties known to have been targeted include the Labour Party, Socialist Party (formerly Militant Labour), Socialist Workers Party, British National Party and the Green Party.
They used false identities which, from around the mid 1970s to mid 1990s, were based on the stolen identities of dead children.
The SDS was a secret project, with candidates quietly approached rather than applying for an advertised post. Most Metropolitan Police officers wouldn’t have known about its existence. From its inception until the late 1980s, it was directly funded by the Home Office.
With little oversight or accountability, the unit rapidly developed a culture of unethical methods. Despite unequivocal Home Office instructions never to risk misleading a court, the scant SDS records show 26 officers (around 20% of the total) were arrested on 53 occasions. Some gave evidence in court, others were even prosecuted under their false identity, which raises serious issues of perjury and perverting the course of justice.
Many officers engaged in long-term intimate relationships with women they spied on, often cohabiting and integrating into families. Two – Bob Lambert and Jim Boyling – are known to have fathered children with women they spied on.
Lambert was promoted to running the SDS from 1993-1998, directly managing the latter part of Andy Coles’ deployment which ran from spring 1991 to February 1995. This was also the time that the SDS was spying on Stephen Lawrence’s family justice campaign.
The SDS was disbanded in 2008, shortly after being amalgamated into the Met’s Counter Terrorism Command unit. A scathing internal report from the time describes disproportionate spying, deceiving of scrutiny by officers from outside the squad, and an absence of moral compass.
A similar unit, the National Public Order Intelligence Unit, ran from 1999-2011.
The truth came to light following the exposure of NPOIU officer Mark Kennedy in 2010. After several years of revelations, it was revealed that the SDS had targeted Stephen Lawrence’s family campaign, and this increased the outrage to the point where then-Home Secretary Theresa May commissioned a full scale public inquiry under the Inquiries Act.
How Many SDS Officers Were There?
Around ten or twelve officers were deployed at any one time.
In February 2017 the National Police Chiefs Council told the public Inquiry into undercover policing that over the 40 year history of the unit:
The current position is that there are believed to have been 118 undercover officers engaged in the SDS, and a further up to 83 management and ‘backroom’ staff
In April 2017 the public Inquiry said it had located an additional 26 undercover officers and 28 ‘supporting officers’ in the sister unit NPOIU.
For more information, see the Undercover Research Group’s profile of the Special Demonstration Squad.