A London university employed a former senior police officer as its head of security. Now he has left after unlawfully sharing a student protest ‘watch list’ with former colleagues in the Metropolitan Police.
Last week, Kings College London published an investigation report (PDF) concluding it had been wrong to ban a staff member and 13 students from access to campus sites during a visit by the Queen in March this year.
The university has also apologised for allowing its Head of Security to share a ‘watch list’ of student campaigners with the Metropolitan Police. This apology focuses largely on the breach of data protection regulations. However, the sequence of events (see below) also suggests that personal contacts with the Met were used create the false impression that blocking students was necessary because of intelligence and pressure from the police, in order to circumvent legal advice that barring students during the Queen’s visit was excessive.
Cops on campus
Throughout the report, the names of other senior staff are visible but the name of the Head of Security – Alaric Bonthron – has been redacted.
We have now confirmed that he left the university in June, shortly before the publication of the investigation report.
We also know that he was formerly a very senior police officer, the Chief Superintendent who managed the Metropolitan Police’s Directorate of Professional Standards that handles complaints against officers.
Previously, he had a senior position in the planning of the huge policing operation during the London Olympics in 2012 and was responsible for “protester liaison teams”.
From 2007 to 2010 he was part of the Met’s Counter Terrorism Command, running “strategic stakeholder engagement” – essentially, a Special Branch role.
Secret watch lists
The investigation by Kings College says a list of protesters was compiled following a campus protest in early March and that a slightly shorter version of this list was shared with the Metropolitan Police.
This list amounted to the kind of individual profiles on prominent campaigners that are central to “domestic extremist” police intelligence-gathering: photos and details of the student societies they were members of, as well as general comments about their involvement previous protests.
None of this was ever verified and the investigation report says at least one name (that of the member of staff) was wrongly identified.
What is most alarming is that the existence of secret lists of student protesters in Kings College would never have become public knowledge
The report’s acknowledgement that the Metropolitan Police never made a formal request for details on these students but the information was proffered by Bonthron to his former employer with no oversight or audit trail raises serious questions about how often this kind of informal exchange had previously taken place.
This concern is reinforced by the report’s confirmation that he had produced lists of students before, following climate change protests and a student occupation in 2018.
What is most alarming is that the existence of secret lists of student protesters in Kings College may never have become public knowledge without the outcry over the ham-fisted decision to exclude some students from all university sites.
The investigation report acknowledges no consideration was given to why this particular list of individuals were blocked from their own university and that Kings College does not know whether their details are still retained by the police.
Its recommendations include an “appropriate support mechanism” to assist students “who wish to make a subject access request to the Metropolitan Police” but no commitment to use its considerable influence to proactively demand any data is deleted from police databases – a double injustice that essentially pushes the responsibility back onto the students and staff member.
Treating students as suspects
In the course of our campaign to end the labelling of legitimate protests and campaigning as alleged “domestic extremism”, we have often heard stories about the targeting of young people, whether they are climate protesters, anti-fascists or mobilising to provide international solidarity to injustices around the world.
What the Kings College report highlights is… a culture of suspicion against its own student population.
We know too that since the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 created a statutory duty for universities to seek out signs of “radicalisation”, there have been increasing complaints about restrictions on participation in dissent, particularly targeting students from racialised communities.
What the Kings College report highlights is not just inadequate data protection procedures, but a culture of suspicion against its own student population.
The university says “the actions we took with respect to our students was wrong and did not meet our values”. One way to rectify these inappropriate actions and stand up for KCL students is for Acting Principal Professor Evelyn Welch to demand confirmation from the Metropolitan Police Commissioner that the information handed over has been deleted.
Perhaps another way, too, is to stop recruiting Heads of Security who are ex-police officers with a background in counter-terrorism and an unhealthy enthusiasm for compiling lists.
WHAT THE KINGS COLLEGE REPORT SAYS
- The report confirms that a list of protesters, sixteen students and one member of staff, who had opposed an event addressed by Israeli Defence Force Colonel Eli Bar-On on 4 March 2019, had been drawn up by Kings College’s Head of Security with a view to using this information for disciplinary proceedings.
- On 15 March 2019, the Head of Security wrote to his contacts in the Metropolitan Police saying he had unconfirmed reports of a planned protest against a visit by the Queen to open KCL’s new Bush House campus. The same day, the university was given legal advice by its General Counsel that barring any group of “known student activists” from Bush House during the opening ceremony was disproportionate.
- On 18 March 2019, the Head of Security’s contact at the Metropolitan Police asked for details of students under suspicion of planning a protest and the campus groups they were involved in. The contact was given a subset of the list compiled earlier in the month and told they were members of KCL’s Intersectional Feminist Society. Most were students of colour. The Head of Security said he was unable to comply with a further request for dates of birth and details of social media accounts because trying to obtain this information would “raise flags”:
- On 19 March 2019, the day of the Queen’s visit, the Metropolitan Police contact emailed again asking for reassurances that all students on the list were barred from access to Bush House. As this was not technically possible, all those on the list had their security cards deactivated for the entire university for the day. One student was blocked from entering a KCL building for an exam at its Denmark Hill site in south London, and was only able to enter when local staff allowed them in.