Heroin and crack cocaine bought with taxpayers' money was routinely given to drug dealers in return for information, a former Scotland Yard undercover officer has alleged.
Christian Plowman, 39, claims that officers from SO10, the elite covert operations unit of the Metropolitan police, would allow dealers to take amounts of class-A drugs
as a form of bribe.
Although not illegal, the practice of officers handing over illicit drugs in return for leads is likely to reignite the debate over the ethics of undercover policing and bring fresh accusations of a lack of control over covert operatives.
"We were treading a line. Often we'd buy some drugs off somebody who would be a junkie and he would promise to take us directly to the dealer the next time, but in return for that he'd want some of the drugs he'd bought for us. We had to be careful that if we agreed to that, he took the drugs himself so he couldn't say that we supplied him," said Plowman.
But Plowman said they never sold drugs, unlike detective constable Nicholas McFadden of West Yorkshire police, who was jailed for 23 years last Thursday after stealing more than £1.2m-worth of drugs seized in police raids and selling them back onto the streets.
Speaking publicly for the first time about his experiences as a covert operative since leaving the Met in 2011, Plowman also accused the undercover unit of targeting "low-hanging fruit" instead of individuals at the top of the criminal chain. He said some covert operations became focused upon getting "heads on sticks", which Plowman said meant "let's bag as many as people as possible for whatever offence we can".
As a result, the full-time undercover officer claims he often found himself targeting crack
addicts instead of dealers and spying on ordinary people.
Plowman spent 16 years in the Met and was one of around 10 full-time covert operatives. He was a close friend of Mark Kennedy, 43, the undercover officer who had at least one sexual relationship with a woman while infiltrating eco-activists. Plowman has written a book about his experiences, Crossing the Line, which is published next month.
Although he praises his colleagues, the former officer describes the culture of SO10 as riven with machismo, to the extent that undercover officers who requested psychological help were seen as not fit for the job.
"You need a culture where you can go and see a shrink and you won't be blacklisted, but there was a proper locker-room culture," said Plowman, who now lives abroad and works as a security manager for a fashion firm. Unable to ask for support and struggling to balance his aliases with his own identity, Plowman admits he contemplated suicide.
He reveals that some former colleagues have threatened him since he left. "One of them said 'next time you're in London, I'm gonna headbutt you', but who'd do that anyway? You're a policeman for starters."
Plowman's last job was working at a north London pawnshop called TJ's Trading Post that was set up by Scotland Yard to trade in stolen goods, but which he believes operated as a "honey trap" that lured people to commit crime. More than 100 people are believed to have been convicted, many for illegally trading their own passports and driving licences.
Plowman claims the store encouraged people in a poor area to commit offences by giving the impression that they could make easy money by trading ID documents
. "They were not people whose arrest would make any visible impact on the community. If TJ's had never opened, those people would not have been in prison for any offence," he said.
Other decisions he disagreed with included the apparent mindset among senior officers that criminals maintained the modus operandi of south-east London gangsters in the 1970s, namely cutting deals during heavy drinking sessions. Plowman said he spent weeks drinking in pubs that were believed to be hubs of criminality but in reality were full of ordinary working men.
"They were just normal people. I felt incredibly uncomfortable infiltrating their lives, however minimal the intrusion. I just thought: 'Why am I here?' In one pub, the biggest crime I saw was a 15-year-old trying to sell some stolen makeup."
Before graduating to a full-time position in SO10, Plowman was a "test purchase officer", which entails police masquerading as drug addicts who frequent street dealers to try to obtain contact details. Even then, Plowman alleges that ambitions fell below what he expected from an elite police unit.
"We ended up buying drugs off proper junkies who were forced to sell them by dealers. They were threatened with violence, were often homeless or their flat had been taken off them by dealers. They shouldn't have been convicted, in my view."
He described one infiltration of a crack den in Richmond, south-west London, in which police targeted Jamaicans who had recently arrived in the UK. "These were very low-hanging fruit. These were guys coming over who had either been threatened or had been paid to sell crack. They were farm boys, essentially. But in the police world, instead of saying we arrested three Jamaican farm boys who didn't know what they were doing, the headline would be: 'Three yardies arrested'."
The Met declined to comment.
The Observer, Saturday 6 April 2013