A British police officer who spent four years living undercover in protest groups has revealed how he participated in an operation to spy on and attempt to “smear” the family of murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence, the friend who witnessed his fatal stabbing and campaigners angry at the failure to bring his killers to justice.
Peter Francis, a former undercover police officer turned whistleblower, said his superiors wanted him to find “dirt” that could be used against members of the Lawrence family, in the period shortly after Lawrence’s racist murder in April 1993.
He also said senior officers deliberately chose to withhold his role spying on the Lawrence campaign from Sir William Macpherson, who headed a public inquiry to examine the police investigation into the death.
Francis said he had come under “huge and constant pressure” from superiors to “hunt for disinformation” that might be used to undermine those arguing for a better investigation into the murder.
He posed as an anti-racist activist in the mid-1990s in his search for intelligence.
“I had to get any information on what was happening in the Stephen Lawrence campaign,” Francis said. “They wanted the campaign to stop. It was felt it was going to turn into an elephant.”
“Throughout my deployment there was almost constant pressure on me personally to find out anything I could that would discredit these campaigns,” he said.
Francis also describes being involved in an ultimately failed effort to discredit Duwayne Brooks, a close friend of Lawrence who was with him on the night he was killed and the main witness to his murder.
The former spy found evidence that led to Brooks being arrested and charged in October 1993, before the case was thrown out by a judge.
The disclosures, revealed in a book about undercover policing published this week, and in a joint investigation by the Guardian and Channel 4’s Dispatches broadcast yesterday, are set reignite the controversy over covert policing of activist groups.
Lawrence’s mother, Doreen, said the revelations were the most surprising thing she had learned about the long-running police investigation into her son’s murder.
“Out of all the things I’ve found out over the years, this certainly has topped it,” she said.
“Nothing can justify the whole thing about trying to discredit the family and people around us,” she added.
In a statement, the Metropolitan Police said it recognized the seriousness of the allegations — and acknowledged their impact. A spokesman said the claims would “bring particular upset” to the Lawrence family and added: “We share their concerns.”
Jack Straw, the former British home secretary who in 1997 ordered the inquiry that led to the 1999 Macpherson report, said: “I’m profoundly shocked by this and by what amounts to a misuse of police time and money and entirely the wrong priorities.”
Straw is considering personally referring the case to the Independent Police Complaints Commission.
Francis was a member of a controversial covert unit known as the Special Demonstration Squad.
A two-year investigation by the Guardian has revealed how undercover operatives routinely adopted the identities of dead children and formed long-term sexual relationships with people they were spying on.
British Prime Minister David Cameron yesterday called for an investigation into claims that police spied on the Lawrence family.
“The prime minister is deeply concerned by reports that the police wanted to smear Stephen Lawrence’s family and would like the Metropolitan police to investigate immediately,” Cameron’s spokesman said in a statement.
Additional reporting by Reuters