‘Invisible Policing: Inside the world of covert surveillance’

Speaker: Dr. Bethan Loftus


Time to read

3 Minutes

Dr Bethan Loftus presented her paper ‘Invisible Policing: Inside the world of covert surveillance’ at the All Souls Criminology Seminar Series on Thursday 10 May 2018. The paper reflects research that will be published as a chapter in her forthcoming book ‘Invisible Policing’. Dr Loftus is currently a Senior Lecturer in Social Policy and Criminal Justice at the University of Bangor, North Wales.

Dr Loftus opened the presentation by observing that covert policing is comprised of a range of discrete tactics and resources that are decoupled from high visibility mainstream law enforcement activity. Operating within a wider public policing environment, the legitimacy of which is frequently challenged by crisis and scandal, covert policing presents a low-profile response to address insecurity. Dr Loftus proposed the covert policing mind-set has become a normalised and embedded feature within late modern policing. She argued police forces have innovated within this area which is subject to considerable regulation, external review and scrutiny.

By its very nature, covert policing should be unnoticed and its logics are inverse to those of traditional ‘overt’ mainstream policing. It relies on concealment, deception and involves limited public contact. Consequently, its culture, practices and social organisation can be challenging to analyse. The purpose of Dr Loftus’ research project was therefore twofold; to examine new legislation aimed at governing covert police surveillance, and secondly to produce a comprehensive, ethnographic field study of covert policing. The work was underpinned by an examination of legislation and guidelines, over a thousand hours of direct practitioner observations and a series of interviews with specialist covert policing officers and staff as well as uniform police officers.

In pursuance of the proposition that covert policing has become normalised in policing thought and practice, Dr Loftus emphasised the increasing volume of covert policing authorisations and the Interception of Communications Commissioner Office (IOCCO) reference to the ‘institutional over-use of RIPA’ (the 2000 Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act which governs the use of intrusive and covert police activity). McGuire (2012) has attributed the growing employment of covert policing tactics to global threats, an emphasis on proactive methods to manage risk and technological change. Dr Loftus stated that her research identified that covert policing was well anchored in organisational arrangements and established infrastructure in the form of dedicated specialist teams and Covert Authority Bureaus (CABs) working within and across police forces. The ethnography identified that the ability to use covert policing methods was well known across the occupational culture and prompts the question; has Brodeur’s (2010) ‘high’ policing moved into the ‘low’ policing arena?

Dr Loftus articulated a series of internal rationales used by practitioners to justify the employment of covert policing tactics rather than more traditional and visible methods. She noted a strong demand for specialist covert policing capabilities and that the teams were viewed as having high status within the wider occupational culture. Furthermore, the work identified a distinct covert policing culture operating in isolation from the clichéd cultural expressions of uniformed police that have been the focus of much scholarship. The research indicated the use of covert policing tactics had become normalised within the organisations involved and its utilisation was no longer considered ‘exceptional’ (Agamben 2005).

Contemporary overt policing seeks to secure and maintain legitimacy in an operating environment characterised by scepticism, criticism and distrust. In such circumstances, recourse to discrete covert policing approaches becomes an attractive alternative over more traditional forms of overt law enforcement. Although the use of covert policing tactics is subject to legal constraint and statutory oversight, Dr Loftus noted that police officers and staff were well practiced at operating within this environment. The covert policing units involved in the study were seen to be operationally adaptive, they responded innovatively to critique and were organisationally self-aware. Dr Loftus suggested covert policing has become a key symbol of police organisational potency in so much as the tactics offer police significant tactical advantages when responding to crime. She also recognised some covert policing approaches, such as the use of drug test purchasers and ‘trap’ tactics to address acquisitive crime, have the effect of generating offences and offenders.

Dr Loftus concluded that covert policing currently occupies important spheres of the police organisation and cultural domain. She observed that covert approaches enjoy backing by the state (Lyon 2008) and that intrusive police practices have come be employed on a mundane basis representing the ‘slow violence’ described by Nixon (2011). The research found that deception, in the form of increased covert activity, was not considered morally questionable within late modern police organisations.

There followed a lively discussion which covered a range of issues initiated by questions relating to the proportion of RIPA authorities which are not supported, the perspective of victims on the deployment of covert policing responses, outcome measures following the use of covert tactics, the application of new technologies and the impact of financial austerity on covert policing resources. The presentation also prompted consideration of the proposal that normalisation follows the creation of a bureaucratic infrastructure and process initially designed for exceptional requirements and demands.

Agamben, G., 2005. State of exception (Vol. 2). University of Chicago Press.

Brodeur, J.P., 2010. The policing web. Oxford University Press.

Lyon, D. (2008). Filtering Flows, Friends, and Foes: Global Surveillance. In Salter M. (Ed.), Politics at the Airport (pp. 29-50). Minneapolis; London: University of Minnesota Press

McGuire M (2012) Technology, Crime and Justice: The Question Concerning Technomia, London and New York: Routledge.

Nixon, R., 2011. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Harvard University Press.


Tim Metcalfe (tim.metcalfe@stcatz.ox.ac.uk) is a DPhil candidate with the Centre for Criminology