|The British police officer who used Rod Richardson's identity at a riot at the G8 summit in Genoa, July 2001|
Beyond whether it's distasteful or dangerous for police to steal the identity of dead children, there is another question. Why would they do it?
Police self-investigation Operation Herne looked at political secret police unit the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS) and reported that
As outlined in the SDS Trade Craft Manual, the practice of using a genuine deceased identity was developed to create a plausible covert identity that was capable of frustrating enquiries by activists
It later reiterates
the subject chosen had to have an 'existence' to show up in case of basic research by suspicious activists
How many times have you looked up a friend's birth certificate because you thought they were actually someone else? It is the rare act of someone with a deep distrust. A real birth certificate woulldn't allay the reasons for that suspicion. More than that, if an activist is suspicious enough to look for a birth certificate, they can find a death certificate too.
There are many reasons why someone might not have a British birth certificate. They may have been born abroad, they may have been adopted. There is, however, no reason for someone who comes round to your house to have a death certificate.
Far from making a plausible, robust cover story, using dead children's identity leaves absolute proof that it's fake waiting to be discovered in documents that are just as easily found as the birth certificate.
In the furore after the tactic was revealed, Met police chief Bernard Hogan-Howe said
At the time this method of creating identities was in use, officers felt this was the safest option.
Yet Herne quotes the SDS Trade Craft Manual describing the practice as 'unsafe'. Conversely, what was unsafe about inventing a fictitious name? By 2014, it seems most officers doing this work have used made-up names yet have not been rumbled.
SDS officers started doing the 'Jackal Run' - stealing a dead child's identity as popularised in the Day of the Jackal - around 1971, the year the book was published. In 1973 it was made into a hit movie, complete with assassin 'the Jackal' walking down the Strand going to get a dead person's certificate, just as these officers did. It put the concept into the public mind. If it ever had been a good idea for covert identity, it was now too well known.
Having found Rod Richardson's birth certificate, the next thing I did was search for and find his death certificate and I immediately knew my friend had in fact been a fraud. After Helen Steel found her partner John Barker's birth certificate, she found his death certificate. It confirmed to us that these men were police spies.
Yet the SDS did it for decades. In their book Undercover: The True Story of Britain's Secret Police, Rob Evans and Paul Lewis describe whistleblower officer Peter Francis' choice of identity. Taking a child whose father had been a Royal Marine serving abroad, Lewis and Evans describe how
the birth certificate was therefore kept in a more obscure overseas registry and would have been almost impossible to find. [Francis said,] 'I made it so hard - I could only just about find it myself afterwards'.
Choosing a child who had died overseas was the kind of ruse SDS officers liked to use. Undercover officers never wanted the birth certificates of the dead children to be too easily located.
Yet we've been repeatedly told that the whole point of using a real identity was precisely because it could be easily located. A real certificate in an unfindable registry would be the same as having no certificate at all.
Less than half a page later Francis explains that by the time someone begins looking for the officer's certificate their cover is irreparably damaged, irrespective of whether they find a certificate or not.
If someone has checked you out that much, you need to go anyway, your time is up.
This flat contradiction is acknowledged by Operation Herne, telling us that
the SDS practice of using deceased children's to construct their covert identities was phased out starting in November 1994... This was not only good for ethical reasons, but it also reduced the risk of compromise, particularly where an officer might be confronted with 'their' own death certificate
We may confidently disregard 'ethical reasons' as a motivation for the SDS. So why did they move away from it?
Herne quotes an officer - probably Roger Pearce - who was an SDS undercover officer from 1978-80 and then Head of Special Branch from 2000-04.
This was long term political infiltration which was seen as justified. It was for Queen and country and peace and democracy. It was the way it was done. A registered birth was the strongest foundation; other methods were not available at the time.
We've already established it's really not a strong foundation for identity. But that last bit is interesting - there were no other methods of creating a fake identity.
Herne asserts that
A genuine identity of a deceased person was needed, as there was no viable means of inserting a fictitious entry into the records of births.
This suggests that, since they've given up the practice, such fake entries can now be made. However, it's interesting to note that Mark Kennedy didn't have one when we looked, some nine months after he left the police.
But back to the initial reason for stealing identity, Herne says the Trade Craft Manual talks of a birth certificate 'giving access to a range of necessary documentation in support of the covert identity'.
Before the transition to computer based records, although a birth certificate was never intended to be an identification document they were regularly used to apply for other documents, such as driving licenses or passports.
In the absence of any other documentary proof, birth certificates were used as effective identification. Indeed before modern developments they might be the only proxy identity document that most members of the public would possess
In other words, it looks like they were used by police to fraudulently apply for bank accounts, passports and the like. If so, that's a few more crimes to add to their list.