Life as an undercover cop: Neil Woods Interview

Neil undercover. Photo: Courtesy of Neil Woods.

Neil Woods spent fifteen years as an undercover drugs police officer on the streets of the UK. In an exclusive interview with Budapest Pulse, Neil tells us how he almost died at the hands of a drug gang, discusses the rules of being an undercover policeman & reveals why the war on drugs has failed.

Thank you for sitting down with us. Let’s start this off. Can you tell us a bit about your background?

I grew up in Buxton, where the water comes from. I suppose I was pretty sheltered there. 

When and why did you join the police force?

I went to university by mistake, it didn’t suit me so I dropped out. I was going to travel around Europe fruit picking or any work I could get but then I saw an advertisement for the police. I flipped a coin to decide what to do. 

I was pretty terrible at the job to start with, I suppose I was young and naive. I struggled but managed to stick at it. After three years I got an attachment to the drugs squad. The reason that someone of us younger cops got attachments is because there was a massive moral panic going on. The newspapers had got the U.K. fearful of crack cocaine. So there was a massive push from the government to investigate drugs more. All the money went into drug policing. 

You spent almost fifteen years as an undercover police officer in the drug squad. How did you get into that?

One of the drug squad detectives asked me if I fancied having a go at buying some crack. I wasn’t expecting that question but I had a go. It wasn’t too difficult that first time the dealer told me to be careful and take care of myself. Of course, the dealers didn’t expect it, but soon the word was out that the police were using new tactics. So undercover work quickly got more difficult and more complicated. 

How do you prepare to be an undercover police officer? Is there a certain way you have to act? Are you playing a character or yourself?

You can’t act as a UC, you have to play a different version of yourself. If you try and maintain an act you will be found out. It’s not like a play on a stage or scene on TV, the scrutiny is very different and you can’t maintain an act of an entirely different character under that kind of pressure. 

And talk us through a typical day in an undercover cops’ life?

A typical day would be networking with connected people. Maybe a bit of shoplifting, buying and selling stuff. Getting an introduction to a dealer, buying heroin then some crack. It depends on the job and at what stage of an operation though, days vary a lot.

Are there any rules that you need to follow? Hollywood would have us believe that undercover officers can do pretty much anything. Is that true?

”One of the drug squad detectives asked me if I fancied having a go at buying some crack. ” Neil buying drugs. Photo: Courtesy of Neil Woods.

Yes, there are rules. The most important rule is that as an undercover police officer you must not act as an agent provocateur; you cannot incite someone to commit an offence that they would not have committed. But the instructions to undercover officers are a bit daft really. One of them is to keep in mind article 8 of the human rights act. How daft is that? It is the nature of the work that you automatically breach the privacy of anyone you interact with. The revelations about the political spy cops that is the Mitting enquiry shows that undercover policing clearly can go way too far. Undercovers had sexual relationships with women, deceiving them to do that and spy on them. A clear breach of human rights and I’d argue that’s sexual assault. It’s time we asked as a society, is there any justification for undercover policing at all? Is there any evidence of the benefit of any of it? And measure that against the harms caused. 

What was the worst thing you ever saw an undercover officer?

The worst thing I saw was desperate problematic heroin users offering themselves for sex. These people are always dealing with childhood trauma, and their actions as adults are compounding that trauma. If they were prescribed heroin like we used to in the U.K. they wouldn’t be having to do this. Prohibition has put them there.

Was your cover ever blown? If so, how did you react & how did you get out of the situation?

I once had a gangster find my camera in a button on my jacket. He tried to tell his mate who was cutting me up some crack in a car but I gave him a torrent of abuse and insisted it wasn’t my jacket. I slowly walked away and then they came after me in the car and almost killed me chasing me along the pavement with the car. 

Now, I read that when you were undercover in Brighton you noticed a high number of overdoses amongst the local users there. What exactly was going on?

In Brighton, they had the highest drug deaths in the U.K. per capita. I spoke with many of the locals who were convinced that dealers were killing people who weren’t careful enough. The dealers were using proxy dealers, ie homeless people. The threat of death was keeping them in line. Now I can’t say that there were casual murders going on, not without a full investigation, but there were plenty of people absolutely sure that many of the overdoses were deliberate. The small group of local police I worked for there really didn’t care though. 

Am I right in saying that you ran into a few corrupt police officers in your time, including a cop who had been placed into the force Departed style by a gangster? Can you tell us about that & can the police ever be trusted?

I did come across corruption plenty of times. In Nottinghamshire, I was trying to infiltrate the periphery of the Bestwood Cartel, run by Colin Gunn. After four and a half months I was getting close to one of those gangsters. Two of my backup team went off sick so I got replacements. One of them made me really on edge so I got rid of them from the team. It turns out my instincts probably saved my life because that cop was a spy for the gangster, Gunn. He’d been paid to join the police, paid £2000 on top of his police wage, plus bonuses for good information. His name was Charlie Fletcher and he had been a cop for seven years. 

The universal attitude from senior police is ‘yes we know this happens. With this much money involved, how can it not happen?’ Let that sink in. It’s completely accepted that drugs Organised Crime has spies who have joined the police. There is no defence against that. The only way that could be stopped is by regulating the drug markets, to take the money away from Organised Crime.

Did you ever fell any guilt about the drug addicts you encountered?

I do feel guilt about what I did because there are a lot of people who needed help whose lives were made much worse by meeting me as an undercover cop. I caused great harm, I made the lives of many vulnerable people less bearable.

Let’s talk about The War on Drugs. Can you give us a brief history of The War & what went wrong?

The War on Drugs is an American import. It came out of American domestic racism. Cannabis was only banned because it was associated with Mexican immigrants. Cocaine was banned because it was seen as a way to oppress black people in the southern states. Opium was about Chinese immigrants. We have this collective assumption that our drug laws are about safety. If that were true then alcohol would be banned, as scientifically it is the most dangerous drug. 

The USA used very aggressive foreign policy to get the world to follow their racist drug policy and look at what that has done to the world. Only 10% of drug use is problematic, and that 10% is a sliding scale. The law persecuted those that need help and ruins the lives of those that don’t with criminal convictions. Most deaths and the violence of Organised Crime is because the drugs are banned.

Now, you are a vocal critic of the war on drugs. When did you realize that the police were not helping the problem?

”The only way to win this war is to declare peace.” Photo: Courtesy of Neil Woods.

It took me a while to finally put the pieces together and realise the harms that policing drugs was doing. I speak out now in the hope that the people I speak to get it quicker than I did. But the evidence is constantly around us. Look at County Lines, children being exploited to sell drugs. That’s because of the drug war, using children is the perfect strategic response to police success in catching the adults. Police are really very good at catching dealers, but can never reduce the size of the market. So policing only changes the shape of the market. And that changing shape doesn’t look too good does it? 

If Prohibition does not work, what does?

The only way to win this war is to declare peace. Take the market away from Organised Crime and have a system of strict regulation. There will never be a perfect solution to drugs, so we have to go for the least worst option. We need to take control so that adults can have access to safer commodities. We need to protect our children because, in the current system, dealers don’t ask for I.D.

And think about it, this problem began with the idea that we could oppress a minority in such an extreme way that we have control over even their mind and body, that we can decide what someone can or cannot do with their own self. This idea is an echo of slavery. If we change that around and assert one basic principle then we can make our society a far better place; We are the master of our own mind and body. Government should be there to make that right as safe as possible. We have regulations for seat belts in cars, for the food we eat, even for the shape of pavements, we walk on. Surely we can regulate to protect our individual liberty? 

Did you face much of a backlash from the force after releasing Good Cop, Bad War?

I did get a backlash after Good Cop Bad War was published, I was like public enemy number 1 to covert police. But times have changed rapidly. I’m not alone you see, I’m part of an international movement, the Law Enforcement Action Partnership, know in the U.K. as LEAP UK. We are former police and other law enforcement who have experienced the drug war and seen the harm. So our growing organisation has had a lot of influence. British police are actually leading the reform debate. All across the nation, there are reforms happening, including diversion schemes which are effectively decriminalizing personal possession. Many police I know wish for the same reforms I’m advocating. 

Your new book, Drug Wars was released earlier this year. What can we expect from that?

Drug Wars. Photo: Penguin Books UK.

Drug Wars, written with the brilliant JS Rafaeli, is a history of the British Drug War, and how the USA influence has so horrifically damaged our society. The corruption it reveals has been terrifying some people, but I make no apologies for that. It’s time to face up to the reality of our drug policy, so the book lifts the veil. Tim Lovejoy (an English television presenter ) and a few other people have called the book life-changing. It’s great to have that support because we have to get the information out there. 

And finally, Neil. What is your life like now?

My life now is very busy. I travel all over speaking and spreading the word. I’m proud to be part of the growing LEAP family, I’m on the board for USA LEAP and we are also about to launch LEAP France. I love working with so many brilliant people, like Transform Drug Policy Foundation and Release, and so many other great allies. It’s an exciting time in politics as more and more MP’s are working on this too. I’ll be speaking at both Conservative and Labour conferences, and I’ve already done the SNP. And of course, the LibDems and Greens already have some progressive drug policies. So please, anyone reading this, whatever your political persuasion, get involved. Become part of the social movement, even if all you do is engage with LEAP UK on social media @UKLEAP.

If you enjoyed that then check out, Neil’s website here.

Click this link to find out more about LEAP UK.

You can buy his books here.

Check out Neil’s, Ted Talk below:

Pulse are continually working hard to give you a unique look at BP & beyond. More interviews to come. In the meantime, please follow us on social media: