Four reasons to close down the police’s domestic extremism unit
Join the discussion online using the hashtags #DomesticExtremist and #ShutNDEDIU
Today is Domestic Extremist Awareness Day, an annual event launched by Netpol in 2014 to publicise how the label of ‘domestic extremist’ is increasingly applied by police to anyone involved in political dissent.
This year, we are calling for the closure of the National Domestic Extremism & Disorder Intelligence Unit (NDEDIU), the discredited police unit responsible for surveillance on protesters. We are also asking you to share why you think the NDEDIU should shut down.
1. ‘Domestic extremism’ means whatever the police want it to mean
The label of ‘domestic extremism’ has no legal basis – it is an invention of the secret world of police surveillance. Under pressure from campaigners, the Metropolitan Police, who run the NDEDIU, came up with what it called a “working definition” in 2014 and says it “relates to the activity of groups or individuals who commit or plan serious criminal activity motivated by a political or ideological viewpoint”. As we pointed out at the time, the law that regulates surveillance powers explains ‘serious crime’ as including “a large number of persons in pursuit of a common purpose”, which is a pretty good ‘working definition’ of what normally constitutes political activism.
A result of this imprecise and flexible definition is evidence that officers working on domestic extremism at ground-level have interpreted it to mean anyone who breaks the law, including any act of civil disobedience. One was recorded saying there was “absolutely no problem” as long as people “demonstrate in accordance with the Public Order Act” – an incredibly sweeping suggestion that everyone else is therefore guilty of so-called ‘extremism’.
2. The obsession with ‘domestic extremists’ encourages the mass surveillance of political dissent
Police use the same approach to surveillance of protest – the National Intelligence Model – as they do for organised crime: assessing ‘risks’ and ‘threats’ and creating detailed ‘target profiles’ on “a (potential) offender and his associates for subsequent action”. What this has resulted in is intelligence-gathering on an industrial scale on protest movements, in order to build a picture of the organisational structures, tactics and organisers of campaign groups and to identify links with existing and potential allies.
This is why we see Forward Intelligence Teams at demonstrations, why on many protests everyone is photographed and why some campaigners find themselves targeted at home.
Inevitably this kind of profiling is often based on no actual criminal behaviour but on an arbitrary and subjective assessment of individuals or groups. It can, however, lead to a different, more aggressive response to certain protesters compared to others.
3. The NDEDIU is wholly unaccountable
It is extremely difficult for different individuals or groups to find out whether they have been designated as ‘domestic extremists’. For example, the police have refused to reveal how many individuals are recorded as allegedly at risk of being drawn into ‘extremism’ through involvement in anti-fracking campaigns, on the basis that this might “fuel perceived grievances such as the view that certain groups are being targeted” (as if this is not already self-evident).
Despite the insistence of the UK Supreme Court, in its judgment in a case involving Brighton campaigner John Catt, that intelligence-gathering “has never been concealed from those who wish to know about these matters”, the experience of campaigners who have tried to find out what data the police hold on them suggests the exact opposite.
Many receive confusing or partial responses and most are told “here is no information the Commissioner is required to supply you.” We believe this is simply a way to ‘neither confirm nor deny’ the existence of surveillance on political groups and their members that is commonplace.
4. Its secrecy always leads to ever more questionable tactics
The NDEDIU is always reluctant to give anything away: last year, it refused to say whether Members of Parliament had been targeted for surveillance and last month, a whistleblower revealed that the unit had shredded documents and deleted database entries on Green Party peer Jenny Jones, who had sought details held on her using data protection laws.
The destruction of files has profound implications for the Pitchford Inquiry into Undercover Policing, which is investigation the activities of the NDEDIU’s predecessors and is completely dependent on the police to release the kind of documents its officers are apparently busy destroying. As the Undercover Research Group points out:
This is history repeating itself. We had it with the destruction of ‘a lorry load’ of records in 2003 (Operation Othona) to protect the Met from the full extent of police corruption coming out. We had it in the deliberate non-disclosure to the Macpherson Inquiry nvestigating corruption in the Stephen Lawrence murder case. We had it in the police seeing no harm in bugging a police meeting with the main witness to the murder and his lawyer… while also spying on 18 black family justice campaigns. We had it at the Blair Peach inquiries and numerous others.
The police claim such practices are part of the past – they always do. It is, however, the absolute secrecy that these unaccountable surveillance units cling on to that makes such dubious self-preservation tactics possible.