Pete Ashton is an ex Army parachutist-turned Territorial Support Group officer who spent a lot of years working as an undercover cop, all over the UK.
Unlike the celebrated Mark Kennedy – who infiltrated eco-protestors – Ashton’s job was to turn over armed drugs gangs.
The people he targeted included the infamous Burger Bar Boys, some members of which were responsible for the New Year shooting deaths of teenagers Charlene Ellis and Letisha Shakespeare.
He tells the story of the operation against the Burgers’ crack and heroin operation in Undercover, which is out now (slightly late).
It’s also a story of a working life spent pretending to be someone else. At home, he was a (reasonably) respectable married father of three; at work, he was a wheeler-dealer crackhead or smackhead.
He got so ‘in character’ that fellow officers (at his home police station) didn’t recognise him when he went in to sign statements; out on the plot, he was arrested on several occasions by suspicious bobbies, which required the pulling by his handlers of some stroke or other to get him out of whichever nick he had found himself locked up in.
Some of the people he worked on were truly unpleasant, and – he says – would have killed him (or very seriously hurt him) had they known what he was about.
Given that, in the early days at least, he was using very rudimentary technology – a video camera in a sports bag, with some sports kit stashed on top, or a bulky recorder strapped to the small of his back – discovery was never far away.
Indeed, other officers were searched, exposed and beaten half to death.
An obvious tactic (for the dealers) is to offer the suspected undercover officer a spliff, or a line. Police officers can’t take drugs – officially – but any user, presented with a freebie, would surely do so without hesitation.
So what was Pete Ashton’s approach?
This is a constant issue for UCs. Real junkies are usually so desperate to get their hands on the crack or smack they want, and reluctant for various obvious reasons to carry it around on their persons, that they don’t waste much time smoking it, shooting it up or tooting it, often on the spot. Obviously, we’re not supposed to do that, and we face a constant battle to appear convincing. Some people can get away with it, and some people can’t, and there’s no easy answer as to why that should be. I think it boils down to Richard Gere’s advice in Chicago: razzle-dazzle the bastards, they can’t see with sequins in their eyes. So you look, act, talk, and smell the part. You come across as somebody who takes no shit, ever. You know your commodity inside out. And, if necessary… well, you probably do need to be prepared to smoke a bit of something from time to time.
The dealer thinks he’s being smart by passing a spliff around. If this new guy’s a cop, there’s no way he’ll take a draw on that, right? Wrong. Many’s the time, if I’m honest, that I’ve smoked cannabis in a junkie’s flat. This is what I meant earlier, when I talked about helping a job along. The suits in the offices don’t like it, and were always talking of bringing random drugs tests for all UC officers. My view was, they could try it – but they’d quickly find themselves down on UCs. Because no actual junkie – anywhere, ever – is going to turn down the offer of a free toke. You might as well lay your warrant card on the table. I’d have smoked crack or heroin, too, if I’d had to. Luckily, I was always able to get out of that, one way or another.
There’s a feeling in some quarters that drugs should be legalised – prohibition doesn’t work, it feeds organised crime, and – given that we just have the one life – why should grown adults spend it being dictated to by the likes of David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband (or any politician) as to what they may or may not consume? Apart from anything else, it starts with drugs, moves on to tobacco, and then… who knows? This is certainly the point of view that Pete Ashton arrived at:
Over the next decade and a half, my view on drugs would change dramatically. Today, I bear little resemblance to the Pete Ashton who joined the Job. I no longer think that all drug users are low life. In the years that followed my first undercover job, I would get to know plenty of them a lot better than I had when I was just busting them for possession now and then. Many turned out to be ordinary folks, often holding down decent jobs, who just liked a little livener now and then. I was no different from those people myself – it was just that my drug of choice was strong continental lager. Not every heroin or coke user gets hooked – plenty can use it at weekends and hold down a normal job the rest of the week. Even most of those who were properly hooked were victims – weak and stupid, no doubt, but still victims.
As for the dealers, lots of them are nasty, violent, vicious people who deserve everything the law throws at them. But some are just supplying a need – a need that in my view has been created, or at least fuelled, by prohibition. Clearly, banning drugs hasn’t stopped their proliferation. When I was a kid, the best you could do in my street was a packet of John Players Specials and a pint of Skol; now you can get whatever you want within five minutes’ walk of my childhood home. The price of MDMA has come down over 20-odd years from £30 a pill to a quid, and Chinese chemists are developing a dozen new legal highs every week. All of which suggests that the ‘War on Drugs’ is not being won.
I’m not saying that drugs are a good thing. In a perfect world, some of them wouldn’t exist. Crack, smack and amphet, when used heavily, are utterly incompatible with society, and they wreck bodies, minds, families, and communities. Speed should be a class A drug. I have seen the damage sulphate can do to people, especially when it’s injected. It can do as much damage as heroin.
But I really don’t think there’s all that much harm in cannabis, ecstasy and coke – in moderation, and if taken by adults. I know plenty of people, including police officers who were serving at the time, who have been regular coke users, and who regard cocaine as a clean drug, as long as it’s obtained from a decent source and is not cheap rubbish. I’ve never taken it myself, and I never will – though only in case it’s as good as I’ve been told it is – but I’ve taken E from time to time, and did so when I was in the police. Often, when infiltrating dealers, a pill would be offered and I would take it. If I were 10 years younger, and I’d been in my early 20s when the acid house scene kicked off in the late 1980s, I’m sure I’d have used E and charlie on a social basis. I’ve given up smoking, but if I still smoked I’m equally sure I’d smoke weed.
In all the kerfuffle about the aforementioned PC Kennedy and the stealing of dead babies’ names, Undercover attempts to give some insight into the stress of this difficult and unseen work.
In the end, it got to Pete Ashton, and he did something foolish (though not very serious) which left him required to resign the force.
(He did other, far more serious things that they didn’t find out about, mind you.)