It was March 2008 in Edmonton, North London. Orlando Chinhemba was sitting on his mate’s sofa listening to his friend talk about a newly opened rap and hip-hop music shop on Fore Street. It was called Boombox, the friend said, adding that there was a recording studio in the back of the shop which you could use for £10 an hour.
A baby-faced 20-year-old from Angola, Chinhemba – who has never spoken to the media before about his experience – was the joker in his friendship group. “I’ve always been this type of guy: wherever I go, I make people laugh,” he says, attributing this in part to his accent, which is much less pronounced now. His goal was to get into the music industry. Over the previous three years, he had been actively making music. Now, as he sat listening to his friend, he wondered if Boombox could be his big break.
“It was nice to see that we had a local studio,” Chinhemba says. “It was totally impossible for you to make a record at that time. It was very expensive just to get into a studio.”
He met the staff in the shop: Amanda at reception, Fish, the manager, as well as Tyrone and Dee. “I was trying to give [my mates] the objective of ‘We need to grow up, we need to achieve big things,’” says Chinhemba. “I had a conversation with Tyrone, how I want to help my community, how I want to stop crime. I want to do big things. That’s the conversation I had with this guy.”
The staff’s knowledge of music was real, but their identities were not. They were undercover cops, and their names were pseudonyms given to the officers to protect their identities. Deployed by the Metropolitan Police, they were the lead actors in Operation Peyzac, a half-a-million-pound mission to control gun crime and escalating violence in the area.
In 2008, between January and July, five young people were killed in Enfield: Henry Bolombi, 17, Louis Boduka, 18, Iyke Nmezu, 16, Bakari Davis, 24, and Melvin Bryan, 18.
“The community was at a point where it was calling upon the law enforcement authorities to cease this dramatic rise in serious crime and murders and to try to return the local community to a place of safety for those living in it,” Heidi Stonecliffe QC, one of the prosecution barristers working the Boombox case, reads from her sentencing notes. Thirty-five men would ultimately be convicted for their involvement in the sting. The men were mostly Black, aged between 16 and 41, and were convicted of offences ranging from drug dealing, trafficking guns and conspiracy to supply firearms.
Fish, an older Black guy with dreadlocks, was good at playing his part. He and the other three were given training in the sort of music the shop was selling and in the running of the place. “If [those undercover] had been discovered, there wouldn't have been a conversation from one of the defendants saying, ‘Look, we think you might be a police officer.’ There wouldn't have been any questions, you know, there would have been significant violence, and that's the end of it,” says Stonecliffe, looking back on the nearly 15-year-old case.
Stonecliffe adds that, as undercover officers are a highly trained “recyclable resource”, measures are always taken to ensure their identity is protected. “They're at risk for revenge attacks, repercussions, their family are at risk. And also if their identity becomes known, they can't be used again.”
Fish, in particular, received high praise, though Stonecliffe tells VICE that the undercover officers who worked on Boombox were “probably the finest” she'd ever worked with.
“The undercover officers sought to portray themselves as having unspecified criminal links in order to infiltrate relevant persons to gather evidence on their levels of criminality,” says Abbas Nawrozzadeh, a senior consultant solicitor at Eldwick Law. “This was one of the largest undercover operations in London in recent years.”
Nawrozzadeh was the defence solicitor for a 19-year-old Black man with no previous convictions who was entangled in the sting. “Our client, like many of the other defendants, looked up to the undercover officers as ‘olders’ – experienced and credentialled, including with regard to criminal ties, music producers who were able to make them famous”.
Chinhemba received a call out of the blue one night from Tyrone, who was asking about Chinhemba’s line of work. “Obviously, in my head nothing’s going on, [I wasn’t thinking that] this guy could be a police officer. Our conversation was mainly music related. I was trying to get him to help me get into the music industry. [I thought] he might give me some kind of position. That’s what I had in my head. I never thought that this guy was trying to entrap us,” he says.
One day, Chinhemba was at Boombox when Tyrone approached him and told him that one of his friends was coming over from Ireland; he was sound, Tyrone said, but he was also a drug addict and he needed some heroin. Could Chinhemba sort him out?
Chinhemba got in touch with an acquaintance who he knew dealt heroin. “I think it was five grams,” he recalls. “It was £75 and that’s what I gave to the guy. It was right at the back of the shop where they had cameras. They probably saw the [dealer’s] car, they could’ve tracked it down and done whatever and then not have asked me.”
“I was the middleman,” Chinhemba says. “That’s how they entrapped us. They made us commit a crime – they didn’t see us committing a crime. I think it was a total miscarriage of justice.”
“They had no mindset to say like, you know, this guy, if we help him, he might do well. The police officers could have seen who is the real drug dealer, and who is down there because of his vulnerability, because he has nowhere to live, because he wants protection,” adding they knew he’d recently moved from Angola. Chinhemba was not homeless, but he said others caught up in the sting were.
Later that year, a fraud case landed Chinhemba in trouble with the police and he served a seven-month sentence. When he got out of prison, it was April 2010, and he found that the flat where he had been staying had been raided. A week earlier, on the morning of 21st April, 652 officers had carried out simultaneous raids on 35 addresses across north and east London and Leeds. They had uncovered stashes of guns and drugs as well as swords, knives, a stun gun and CS gas.
Rather than wait for the police to find him, Chinhemba decided he’d hand himself in; that evening, he walked into Islington police station. He gave his name at the front desk and two police officers took him into a room for questioning. The police told him all about Operation Peyzac and tried to pressure him to reveal the names of people that he knew. “I laughed,” says Chinhemba. “I couldn’t believe it.”
“They said, ‘We know you’re not a drug dealer. Just give us the names and we’re going to write to the judge, and you’ll get a slap on the wrist.’ I can’t just go and testify and then you’re going to put me back in the neighbourhood and I’m a snitch and I get stabbed and killed. Are you stupid?”
Chinhemba decided to keep his mouth shut. The officers arrested him for the heroin deal, and charged him with supplying drugs to an undercover officer. Chinhemba was remanded in HMP Pentonville together with the other men.
“My solicitor said ‘Look, there’s not much to do. You either plead guilty or you can go to trial. And you might get a harsher sentence.’ So I went for the guilty plea under the circumstances. I got three years.”
Nawrozzadeh explains: “The defence case was that the undercover officers entrapped the defendant to commit these offences under inducement and threats. It was submitted on behalf of the defence that the defendant was entrapped into committing offences he would otherwise, but for their actions, not have committed.”
“Essentially, these offences were manufactured by the police. The police used older Black undercover officers and it was submitted that the police sought to criminalise the defendant – and the other youth in the area – rather than to obtain evidence of crimes that the defendant was already engaged in, or intending to commit,” he adds.
“The inducements,” Nawrozzadeh says, “and threats included regular use of the recording studios; free cigarettes and drinks; free top-ups to his mobile phone; providing the defendant with cannabis and permitting him and others to smoke on the premises; and holding out a promise of advancement in relation to his music career.”
But such issues did not concern the judge. Stonecliffe says he understood them to be part and parcel of the relationship being built between the undercover officer and the defendant, and that the inducements were very much an effort, on the part of Fish, to try to stop the defendant from committing further criminality. “If the defendant said he was going to steal a pair of trainers, he [the undercover officer] would, in his role as Fish, say, ‘No, you don't do that. Here’s 20 quid, some money to go and get some trainers,’” explains Stonecliffe.
Chinhemba is clear that he feels he and the other defendants were entrapped. “I get that that point was put [forward] and I remember hearing it, but there wasn't actually much credibility in it, to be perfectly frank,” says Stonecliffe.
“Entrapment is quite a high benchmark. And that's why the Court of Appeal didn't hesitate to say this was not entrapment. It was all volunteered by the defendants.”
The judge ultimately ruled that the police “did not overstep the mark, but instead showed enthusiasm and commitment in investigating crimes,” says Nawrozzadeh. The undercover officers were recognised with Judges’ Commendations, or special praise for outstanding police work. “Operation Peyzac is seen as one of the most innovative and successful covert operations run by the Met,” Detective Chief Inspector Paul Harwood, who supervised the operation, announced at the time.
“My client,” Nawrozzadeh says today, “was an amateur rapper and, like millions of other young men, often rapped about money, women, drugs and guns, The reality was that his lyrics were pure fiction; he had no money, he was not surrounded by ‘hoes’ and he had never even held a gun.”
“The response from BME community members was highly critical of the police; they were concerned that the police were creating crime - racially profiling and criminalising young Black men who had no connection to criminality other than that which they were exposed to by the undercover officers,” he adds.
Of the 35 individuals arrested in Operation Peyzac, 30 were identified by police and in the popular press as gang members. The term was also invoked at trial. However, another defendant who wished not to be named tells VICE that while some of them recognised their co-defendants, the majority disputed that such activity represented ‘gang’ involvement. When asked about his involvement with gangs, Chinhemba said he had no awareness of what a gang was. “I was just like someone else integrating into English society, and the environment I was living in was predominantly Black,” he says.
In 1998, the Metropolitan Police launched Operation Trident. In 2001, police in Manchester established Manchester Action Against Guns and Gangs (MAAGGs). These dedicated police and criminal justice teams (‘gun’ and ‘gang’ units) were created in response to the emergence and growth in England of American-style gangs characterised by gun and knife criminal behaviour and the perpetration of serious violence offences. In the ensuing 20 years, further policies have been introduced in response to the perceived growth in the number of gangs in England, but, importantly, there is little evidence to substantiate their effectiveness.
“In the era of austerity, £10 million of taxpayers’ money has been wasted on initiatives that have not been described or evaluated,” say researchers Juanjo Medina and Jon Shute, who are respectively senior lecturers at the Centre for Criminological and Socio-Legal Research at the University of Manchester and in the Department of Criminology at the University of Manchester. “Grandiose success claims are made despite precisely no evidence of understanding or achievement.” While Operation Peyzac was not a Trident operation, there are questions around the effectiveness of such operations in countering organised and gang crime.
There appear to be no UK studies on how effective undercover operations are; nor is there much analysis on what they cost economically and psychologically – for police officers and those ensnared. While the tally of those arrested in Boombox is impressive, there is little information publicly available about the impact of the operation on crime in the area, though the Mail reported in 2011 that “in the 12 months after mid-October 2009 the rates of highly violent crime in those areas [Upper Edmonton, Edmonton Green and Lower Edmonton, three suburbs near the shop] fell by 6.9 per cent, 34.5 percent and 45 percent respectively”.
But a 2007 US Department of Justice-funded study criticised the practice of police sting operations, finding that they reduce crime for a limited time – three months to a year – if at all: “At best, they are a stopgap measure,” and at worst, an expensive waste of public and police resources, which “may prevent the use of other, more effective problem-solving techniques”.
Over the last decade, undercover police work has come under fire for a number of public scandals, notably when it was reported that undercover officers had entered into intimate relationships with members of the groups they were targeting, in some instances fathering children. In 2015, the then Home Secretary Theresa May set up the Undercover Policing Inquiry to investigate a series of allegations that she said amounted to evidence of “historical failings”.
Undercover police operations are governed by the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA). The Home Office Code of Practice on Covert Human Intelligence Sources (CHIS) made under the Act provides detailed rules about what undercover officers can and cannot do while deployed. As well as RIPA, undercover operations are governed by a range of other legislation, such as the Human Rights Act 1998, the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 and the Prosecution of Offenders Act 1985. Police officers must also comply with the national code of conduct for undercover police officers, developed by the National Undercover Working Group and the College of Policing.
Despite the existence of a strong framework of statutory regulation, undercover officers are unlikely to be prosecuted for their actions as long as their actions lie within the scope of their undercover role.
“Undercover policing has had to change over time and adapt to quite a challenging environment. But it’s still effective,” says Richard Carr, a former Merseyside Police Detective Superintendent and lecturer at the Liverpool Centre for Advanced Policing Studies. “I think that undercover policing has got a vital part to play in policing. But it’s got to be done ethically and proportionally. You’ve got to play by the rules. It all needs to be authorised.”
“Some of these may be innocent people who have been entrapped. And I don’t know whether that’s the case [here], but what it doesn’t mean is that undercover policing is ineffective,” he adds. “It means that this operation hasn’t been as ethically sound as you would want.”
But Chinhemba’s case raises questions about the limits of police conduct. “I don’t want to sound like someone who is anti-police or anti-government or someone who hasn’t regretted his mistakes,” he says. “I’m not trying to say my actions were good.”
“I’m trying to say the policing could have been done in a better way. They could have accessed people and said ‘That guy doesn’t need to go to prison. He can be rehabilitated in the community. This guy is in a vulnerable situation’. I didn’t have to spend 15 months in prison.”