Undercover police and the law: the men who weren't there

Published Wednesday, 19 October 2011
Toggle font size

Jim Boyling was authorised to use his fake name even when under oath in court, and he wasn't alone say other officers

As Jim Sutton stood up in court he seemed to all the world as if he was a committed campaigner striving to protect the environment. He took to the stand and affirmed under oath his name and address.

Still under oath, he then gave evidence, under questioning from barristers, as he sought to clear himself and seven other campaigners accused of disorderly behaviour during a demonstration. He told the court that he wanted to unfurl a banner from the window of a government building to promote their cause.

But what the other campaigners and lawyers at London's Horseferry Road magistrates court that day could not have realised was that a fictitious man was being prosecuted. The courtroom was hearing evidence from a man who never actually existed.

The quiet man purporting to be an ardent activist who got by as a cleaner was in reality an undercover police officer who had been infiltrating political movements for some time as part of a long-standing operation to garner intelligence on campaigners. His real name was Jim Boyling and he was employed by a covert Scotland Yard unit specialising in monitoring political activists.

Revelations about the deployment of police spies in protest groups have provoked much controversy this year, but the latest allegations may be the most damaging. Police chiefs now stand accused of authorising their undercover officers to give false identities in a deliberate manipulation of the legal system.

They are under pressure to explain how often they may have sanctioned their officers to deliberately mislead judges and magistrates and break the law in their courtrooms.

One undercover officer who is prepared to speak out says that the Boyling case was not a one-off. Pete Black, who worked alongside Boyling in the covert unit monitoring political campaigners, told the Guardian that undercover operatives were often prosecuted under their fake identities, as it helped to foster their credibility as genuine campaigners.

Andrew James Boyling's astonishing double life started around 1995 when he was sent to infiltrate hunt saboteur campaigners. Black, who was concentrating on penetrating anti-racist groups, mentored Boyling in the arts of masquerading as a fervent activist.

By the following year, Boyling had been switched to spying on a group known as Reclaim the Streets, a campaign which took over public roads and staged imaginative parties in protest against the domination of cars. Boyling became an established and trusted member of the campaign, who could be relied upon to turn up at its protests and weekly meetings.

"He was totally deeply embedded in the whole social network as well. Meetings often happened in the top room of a pub so he would be there and end up living with people," said one activist. Described as reticent and "a nice bloke", the fitness fanatic did not take part much in political discussions, but had an asset which was unusual among the environmental campaigners – a van. He used it to transport equipment for demonstrations from, for instance, activists' homes.

On 7 August 1996 hundreds of activists cycled around London's Trafalgar Square to bring traffic to a standstill in support of a strike by tube workers. Boyling, known as "Jim the Van", was among a group of protesters who then occupied the nearby office of the chairman of London Transport.

His legal journey from the moment of his arrest to taking the stand in court has been pieced together by activists and their lawyer, Mike Schwarz of the law firm Bindmans, after Boyling was exposed as a police spy by the Guardian in January this year.

Surviving records from the case show that a group of campaigners got into the headquarters of London Transport and went up the stairs to the chairman's office on the seventh floor. PC David Casson testified that he could "see demonstrators sat around the office and some on the window sill". With another officer, he went to the window and "we removed a male I now know to be Peter James Sutton and a female. Sutton was holding a large pink and white coloured banner out of the window". Sutton and the woman were said to be the last to be escorted from the office.

Boyling, under his Sutton alias, was later to tell the trial that "we felt the intention was to unfurl the banner as we felt it would be of interest to the media", according to a legal note taken by the court clerk. It read "Don't Squeeze the Tube".

The prosecution had claimed that the protesters pushed past security guards and shoved an employee to the floor while "shouting and screaming and being disorderly". On the stand, Sutton rejected these claims and insisted that the protesters had been "very civilised", according to the legal note of his evidence.

Casson testified that "due to the large number of arrests, the nature of the allegation and the possibility of the group escaping, Sutton was handcuffed in the back-to-back position, double-locked, checked for tightness".

At 11.15am, he was arrested and taken to Charing Cross police station where he declared that he was "Peter James Sutton", a cleaner from east London. He gave his date of birth as 24 April 1967, although other official forms record it as 9 March 1965.

At the station, he instructed Bindmans to represent him, in common with the other activists. A Bindmans lawyer sympathised with him for having "a rather difficult time" at the station as he had been held in custody for more than six hours. He and the others were charged with breaking the Public Order Act.

The three-day trial heard that a plain clothes police officer, Christopher Fernot, had been keeping a "watchful eye" on the group of activists, including Boyling, who had broken away from the Trafalgar Square demonstration. He followed them into the office of the chairman of London Transport.

Boyling and the other activists were acquitted, although another campaigner, John Jordan, was convicted of assaulting a police officer and given a conditional discharge following disputed evidence. Jordan has launched an appeal to overturn his conviction, alleging he did not get a fair trial because of misconduct by the prosecution.

He alleges that the campaigners' confidential discussions with their lawyers were "blatantly breached as a result of apparently authorised executive action". He also says that "the undercover officer played a major role in initiating conduct which was then prosecuted".

Activists say that the courtroom deception helped to bolster Boyling's position in the group and he went on to burrow himself into the inner core of the group by 1999. In the same year, he fell in love with another Reclaim the Streets activist and moved in with her. But he became more and more moody and then in September 2000 he suddenly left. He told her that he was going to Turkey and then to South Africa, but then disappeared.

In a detailed account, she has told the Guardian how she spent more than a year trying to find him and his relatives who, she discovered, did not exist. She spent her savings travelling abroad in search of him. Eventually she bumped into him by chance in the London bookshop where she was working.

Boyling told her he was a police officer. They later married and had two children before divorcing two years ago. The woman, who was not named by the Guardian, alleged that Boyling encouraged her to change her name by deed poll, seemingly to hide their relationship from his bosses.

She also alleged that he only notified his superiors of his relationship with her in 2005, around the time they married under her new identity. She further alleged that Boyling had identified at least two other police undercover officers

Following the claims, the Metropolitan police launched an investigation and restricted Boyling from his duties as a detective constable in the force's counter-terrorism division.

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2011
Comments Comments
No comments. Be the first to comment.
Email address*:    
House Rules:  
Your Comment:  
[All comments are moderated and will not appear immediately. Your name, location and comment will be displayed on this page if your post passes moderation.]
January snow
Tue 13 January 2015
Wintry weather
Wed 28 January 2015
Ravenhill Road fish spill
Sun 25 January 2015