N81: Profile from the Ellison Report

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This article is part of the Undercover Research Portal at Powerbase - investigating corporate and police spying on activists

Part of a series on
undercover police officers
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Alias: unknown
Deployment: 1996-ca. 2001/2002
Black & family justice campaigns

N81 is the code-name given to a Metropolitan police officer, who served undercover with the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS) from 1996 to around 2001/2; his handler was Bob Lambert. He infiltrated a political group in London involved in the campaigns around the Stephen Lawrence murder. Furthermore, he - or another unnamed SDS undercover officer - appears to have been active in a group close to Duwayne Brooks, friend of Stephen Lawrence and with him at the moment of the racist attack. It has since emerged that the Lawrence family was not the only black justice campaign that was spied upon.[1]

N81 came to public attention when he was mentioned in the 2014 Stephen Lawrence Independent Review - commonly known as the Ellison Review.[2] Amongst other things, the Review looked into allegations of SDS undercover whistle-blower Peter Francis who claimed to have been instructed to find information to smear the Lawrence family and those around them.[3]

All that is publicly known of N81 (at the time of writing, May 2015) is based on the findings published in the Ellison Review. Although N81's role was central in the investigation, Ellison deliberately obscured details which would identify the group he had infiltrated in order to protect the undercover officer's identity.[4]

For both Ellison and the related work of Operation Herne the investigation was hampered by an apparent policy within the SDS of not keeping records, which made them reliant on interviews in many cases[5] and thus on what police officers involved remembered - or chose to remember. This reconstruction below is based on a careful reading of both the official reviews, fine-combing them for details and re-assembling the collected information into a narrative that gives a first picture of N81's tour of duty.

This page is one of series on N81 and the spying on the Stephen Lawrence campaign. Related pages:

The Ellison Review and Operation Herne

In July 2012 Mark Ellison, QC was tasked by Home Secretary, Theresa May, to look into allegations that police involved in the Stephen Lawrence murder inquiry in the early 1990s had been under investigation for corruption, and that this had been withheld from the Macpherson Inquiry.[6] Following the claims of Peter Francis in 2013 that the Metropolitan Police (the Met) had asked him to find information to smear the Lawrences and the associated family justice campaign, Ellison's brief was extended to look into the role of undercover officers at the time.[7] This paralleled Operation Herne, a Met investigation into wider abuses by undercover officers in the wake of the exposure of Mark Kennedy and Bob Lambert. As a result Ellison drew on some of Operation Herne's work[8], and both published a report on this particular part of their reviews at on same day, 6th March 2014.

Mark Ellison QC learned that N81 deployment was during a particularly sensitive period for the Metropolitan Police and community relations. It was a time of high racial tension in London: the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry under Sir William Macpherson was taking place, and Duwayne Brooks was in a position of being both a witness for the police and taking a case against them to counter what amounted to a campaign to damage his reputation. Ellison concluded that if the presence of undercover officers in the Lawrence family camp had been discovered at the time, it could have led to public disturbance in and of itself.


Little is known of N81's activities prior to his involvement with SDS, other than that he had spent three years in Special Branch,[9] which is consistent with the assertion that most SDS undercovers were drawn from Special Branch.[10] Prior to being asked to join he had not known of the SDS's existence. His training involved working for six months in the SDS back office under a 'field mentor', developing his cover identity and witnessing the handling of the unit's work.[11]

Lambert was the Detective Inspector with responsibility for N81 within the SDS in 1998; Operation Herne has indicated that he was acting as the Detective Chief Inspector in charge of the Squad in July 1998,[12] which is confirmed by Walton in his interview with Ellison[13]

During N81's time, undercover officers usually telephoned in twice a day and met with SDS management twice a week; all aspects of deployment were discussed with 'handlers' who would then direct where to focus. Debriefing was done verbally initially, either over the phone to the handling sergeant, or face to face; though by the end of his deployment N81 was typing material up and handing it over on floppy disk. He was not made privy of what use the SDS managers put the intelligence he gathered. [9](In intelligence work, it is considered good practice to keep a wall between those who gather intelligence and those who assess it and decide what to do with it.)

N81 denied that he used a the tactic of taking a dead child’s identity when developing his cover story, and said that he had not engaged in sexual relationships and had not been arrested when undercover.[14]

Ellison discussed both the undercover work and his attitude to it in some detail, reporting:

N81 was frank enough to acknowledge suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and depression as a result of the work done for the SDS, and to be having difficulty remembering some of the detail of it. ... N81 had felt very threatened by what N81 regarded to be a very hostile management, when all N81 had done at the time was the job that he had been asked for.

The Ellison Review continues with crediting of N81's professionalism and his credibility:[15]

We have no doubt that, in carrying out SDS work, N81 was an officer doing as professional a job as possible, according to tasking given by superiors, and using the methods the superiors encouraged to be used.

The Report goes as far as to add this caveat:

The criticism we make around the use made of N81’s reporting at the time of the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry is not directed at N81.

The Ellison Review also found SDS records recommending N81 for a commendation in 2001, detailing the value of his work:[16]

The provision of a perspective to those charged with formulating the MPS position on key strategic issues. (N81) was thus debriefed thoroughly by the Stephen Lawrence Review Team as it considered how the MPS might regain the confidence of the black community, how it might assess the potential for disorder by sections of that community and what might be the consequences of sustained political pressure on the MPS from hard-left and other groups not well disposed to the police.

Ellison concluded:

This seems to us to be a clear indication from within the SDS that the use made of N81’s reporting at the time of the Public Inquiry was more than the traditional ‘public order’ remit.

N81's target group

There is a dispute as to whether the Lawrences were specifically targeted by undercover operations. Peter Francis says it was being deliberately. Clearly N81 was reporting back gossip on the family among other things.

The official remit of the SDS was targeting groups potentially fomenting or participating in public disorder, and moving organically thereafter as needed; N81's deployment was in line with that, Ellison stated. He was primarily focused on 'predominantly left-wing or anarchistic ‘street disorder' groups from 1996 to 2001' (quotation marks in original). N81 became 'well-placed in one of the groups that associated itself and tried to build relations with, both the Lawrence family and other groups during the Public Inquiry'.[9] On several occasions he attended the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry.[17]

The answer to the most important question of the Ellison review becomes a bit of a word game, and shows that the police uses the term 'targeting' in the most limited meaning possible. Ellison writes (emphasis in original):

N81 is adamant that there was no tasking at any stage into the Stephen Lawrence family campaign, but it is clear to us that N81’s reporting nevertheless touched on the Lawrence family and its campaign.

Strictly spoken, N81's target was another group (or groups), which allows those responsible to speak of the intelligence gathered on the Lawrence campaign as 'collateral intrusion.' Ellison, in his findings,[18] links the high risks of collateral intrusion explicitly to 'the policy of almost absolute secrecy around the SDS’s undercover deployments' but stresses that this does not absolve the Metropolitan Police from its responsibility to monitor the proportionality of the undercover deployments.

The word game has a touch of 'plausible deniability', a core concept in covert action as practised by the CIA, to make sure there is no evidence of wrong doing by creating a distance in order to shift the blame.[19]

Did N81 target the Lawrences?

The fact that N81 was well-placed and close to the Lawrences is clear from the Ellison Review, and undisputed. However, the most important question is not being asked. Was the involvement with the family justice campaign a genuine plan of the group, or was it - intended or not - the result of N81 undercover efforts?

This is what the Ellison Report says about it.

According to N81's account to Operation Herne, the target group's intention was to 'openly or covertly influence this campaign. [The Stephen Lawrence Campaign] was a high-profile opportunity to attack the ‘State’; any campaign was seen as an opportunity to take such action'.[17]

An 'SDS Intelligence Update' entitled "Extremist involvement in the Stephen Lawrence campaign" prepared at the time (early September 1998) confirms this:[20]

Over the last 6 months N81 has reported comprehensively on the persistent and largely successful attempts by (N81’s group) to gain influence within the Stephen Lawrence campaign… (N81’s group) have managed to broaden the agenda within the campaign group to include a platform for their own uncompromising view that the SL case is but one that shows the police to be corrupt and racist from top to bottom. While the Lawrence family have sought to prevent extremist activists from taking over the campaign, N81’s reporting reveals the extent to which groups like (N81’s group and others) have gained a significant foothold within the ad hoc organising group...

This report can be read as a confirmation of the 'danger' of the group and a justification of N81 presence. But it can also be understood as a description of the success of N81's manoeuvres to move the group towards the Lawrence campaign.

An 'SDS briefing note' dated 2001 (towards the end of N81's deployment) emphasises the success of the operation, saying:

N81 is quite candid in admitting that (N81) was largely responsible for (N81’s group’s) adoption of the Stephen Lawrence case, and the rest, as they say, is history.[21]

However, N81 does not remember saying such a thing, he told the Ellison Review:

It is not my record. It is laughable that I persuaded them to do that… I did not dissuade… I was quite happy to do that… I was supportive of it… but did not come up with the idea… they were always going to do that… they asked and I said ‘Yes, why not?… the public order issues around the Inquiry were huge… they were very happy when it went into Lawrence… I was reporting back verbally every day… if they had said that I shouldn’t I would have pulled back… I may have bigged myself up to my management. I was enthusiastic about it.[21]

Several years after his deployment, N81 had a meeting with Det. Sgt. N367 who became a point of contact for ex-SDS officers in 2006 (it is unclear when this took place, in 2006 or later[22]). N367 told the Ellison Review what he remembered:

...in 1998 N81 was asked to work… to monitor community police tension as part of the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry… During this period N81 had mixed with persons such as Trevor Phillips, John Waldon[23], Lee Jasper and Michael Mansfield. This part of N81’s deployment had concluded in 2001. N81 stated that this deployment ‘was directly tasked by the highest of management… that N81 should infiltrate the Lawrence family and their supporters in order to assess community tensions’. N81 did not want to go into much more detail…

However, N81 disagreed with this report, and told Ellison that N367 seemed to have an agenda to belittle the SDS.[14]

Intelligence gathered by N81

Another way of answering the question whether N81 targeted the Lawrences, is by looking at the intelligence he gathered, still according to the Ellison Report:[17]

  • Material on the relationship and intention of the target group;
  • Decisions by the Lawrence family on whether to allow demonstrations outside the (Macpherson) Inquiry venue;
  • Reports of protests;
  • Who was and who was not supporting what the Lawrence family wanted, including the call by Doreen Lawrence for the resignation of the Commissioner in August 1998;
  • The internal working of the Lawrence family campaign;
  • Personal details of the Lawrence family;

In a July 1998 report, N81 describes Neville Lawrence's concern about the campaign being hijacked by political interest groups. The report had the following quote from a 'close advisor' of the family:

that the main problem facing the campaign was the refusal of both Neville and Doreen to have anything to do with other groups... that they had in reality separated and that they only continued together as a front for the campaign ... that Doreen in fact wished to wind the campaign up at this point and simply await the findings of the Inquiry, but Neville is more open to continuing but only until the Inquiry releases its findings... (that an adviser) said that there was somebody very close to the Lawrence family who was an ‘uncle tom’ and as a police agent was actively advising the Lawrences against any real action....[17]

Reports that touched on personal details of the Lawrence family, including sections like this:

As for the Lawrence family, Doreen and Neville Lawrence split up during the first stage of the Inquiry (although this is not public knowledge). Neville remains the more politicized of the two although Doreen has recently been vocal in her calls for the Commissioner to resign. Neville feels a measure of ‘ownership’ of the Inquiry and resents others who seek to make capital of it, particularly when they call for public disorder. He is not a good public speaker, but will attend meetings and speak if invited. His addresses are usually little more than recitation of past events and his attitude to the Inquiry has caused resentments amongst extreme left-wing groups. At this stage these groups cannot afford to be publicly disowned or condemned by the official family campaign group. However, it should be reiterated that these groups value their own agendas over that of the Lawrence family.[17]

Meeting between N81 and the Lawrence Review Team

The Ellison Review zoomed in on a 1998 meeting between N81 and DI Richard Walton, set up by Bob Lambert. At the time, Walton was part of the Lawrence Review Team and tasked with preparing Metropolitan Police Commissioner Paul Condon submissions to the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry. This meeting was considered to be highly inappropriate in hindsight as explained in more detail on a separate page; it showed that information gathered by undercover officers was used to mould the Commissioner's response to what was supposed to be an independent inquiry. Ellison stated that if this would have come out at the time, it would have caused riots.[24]

However, in the late 1990s - as the Ellison Review documented - nobody had any second thoughts about the meeting. It was only after Richard Walton was informed that he was going to be criticised in the Ellison Review report, that he understood he was in trouble. His attempt to change his account was dismissed by Ellison, and the subsequent fall-out would lead to Walton being temporarily removed from his post as Commander of Counter Terrorism Command in March 2014.[25] Within days after the Ellison Report was published, the Home Secretary announced her intention to set up a judge-led public inquiry into the spying operations.

Walton's case was referred to the Independent Police Complaint Commission; however Walton was restored to his post in December 2014 before the investigation was finished.[26] In May 2015, the IPCC announced to have widened the investigation to include two further former Met officers.[27]

Subsequent use of N81 intelligence

After the disputed meeting in Lambert's garden, a formal route was set up in September 1998 to channel information gathered by N81 and other undercover officers to Walton. SDS intelligence was to be forwarded, via DS McDowell to John Grieve of CO24 tasked with reinvestigating the Lawrence murder and restoring relations with black communities; Walton was to join CO24 in October 1998.

The channel was a secret operation; Commander Black wrote in a memo: "I have reiterated to [Walton] it is essential that knowledge of the operation goes no further. I would not wish him to receive anything on paper."[28]

Ellison pointed out:[12]

The correspondence file that was opened by Commander Black on 14 September 1998 still exists, and it includes retained notes and briefings sent to CO24, apparently from 28 September 1998 onwards. The majority of the correspondence consists of threat assessments relating to possible public order issues. These were around the London-based venues where Part Two of the Inquiry was considering holding hearings within the MPS area. Such briefings fitted the description given in Commander Black’s note on 26 September 1998, which suggested: “suitable material to DS McDowell, both tactical intelligence around the Lawrence enquiry and broader work on race crime”. Included within this retained correspondence was what we have summarised above as reports that touched on personal details regarding the Lawrence family emanating from N81’s reporting.

Additional UndercoverResearch resources

External Sources


  1. Reel family demand an apology from the Met Police and robust inquiry into police spying, The Monitoring Group, 14 July 2014, accessed 24 November 2014.
  2. Mark Ellison, The Stephen Lawrence Independent Review, UK Government, 6 March 2014.
  3. Rob Evans & Paul Lewis, Police 'smear' campaign targeted Stephen Lawrence's friends and family, The Guardian, 23 June 2013, accessed 2 May 2014.
  4. Mark Ellison, The Stephen Lawrence Independent Review, UK Government, 6 March 2014, Vol. 1, p.p.224, 228
  5. Mark Ellison, The Stephen Lawrence Independent Review, UK Government, 6 March 2014, Vol. 1, p.201
  6. Mark Ellison, The Stephen Lawrence Independent Review, UK Government, 6 March 2014, Vol. 1, p.1
  7. Mark Ellison, The Stephen Lawrence Independent Review, UK Government, 6 March 2014, Vol. 1, p.3
  8. Mark Ellison, The Stephen Lawrence Independent Review, UK Government, 6 March 2014, Vol. 1, p.185
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 Mark Ellison, The Stephen Lawrence Independent Review, UK Government, 6 March 2014, Vol. 1, p.224
  10. Mark Ellison, The Stephen Lawrence Independent Review, UK Government, 6 March 2014, Vol. 1, p.197
  11. Though it has not been confirmed, it is thought that such a mentor would be someone who had served previously undercover. Given the apparent working closeness of N81 and Peter Francis, that they overlapped in similar groups and that N81 appears to Francis's effective replacement, Francis is a strong candidate for having been N81's mentor. Mark Ellison, The Stephen Lawrence Independent Review, UK Government, 6 March 2014, Vol. 1, p.224
  12. 12.0 12.1 Mark Ellison, The Stephen Lawrence Independent Review, UK Government, 6 March 2014, Vol. 1, p.231. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "ELLISON1.231" defined multiple times with different content
  13. Mark Ellison, The Stephen Lawrence Independent Review, UK Government, 6 March 2014, Vol. 1, p.235
  14. 14.0 14.1 Mark Ellison, The Stephen Lawrence Independent Review, UK Government, 6 March 2014, Vol. 1, p.253
  15. Mark Ellison, The Stephen Lawrence Independent Review, UK Government, 6 March 2014, Vol. 1, p.254
  16. Mark Ellison, The Stephen Lawrence Independent Review, UK Government, 6 March 2014, Vol. 1, p.227
  17. 17.0 17.1 17.2 17.3 17.4 Mark Ellison, The Stephen Lawrence Independent Review, UK Government, 6 March 2014, Vol. 1, p.225
  18. Mark Ellison, The Stephen Lawrence Independent Review, UK Government, 6 March 2014, Vol. 1, p. 262-263
  19. Plausible deniability is central to the U.S. concept of covert action, as an intelligence veteran Mark Lowenthal wrote, that U.S. denials of a role in the events stemming from a covert action appear plausible. Once the origin of the action is no longer covert, deniability is barely plausible. Indeed it is a way of avoiding responsibility for controversial operation. Mark M. Lowenthal (2011) Intelligence: From Secrets to Policy, Sage, p.190-191; available via googlebooks.
  20. This paragraph was quoted twice in the Ellison Review, on p.226 it is said to be 'a briefing note prepared by Bob Lambert' summarising N81's work, while on p. 229 it says it is an SDS Intelligence Update, September 1998, found within a batch of SDS operational strategy reports, and that it appears to be prepared by SDS Detective Chief Inspector N58. Mark Ellison, The Stephen Lawrence Independent Review, UK Government, 6 March 2014, Vol. 1, p.226 and p.229
  21. 21.0 21.1 Mark Ellison, The Stephen Lawrence Independent Review, UK Government, 6 March 2014, Vol. 1, p.226
  22. N367 joined Counter-Terrorism Command which had just subsumed Special Branch in 2006
  23. The Daily Star Sunday identified this as a misspelling for John Wadham, who was head of Liberty 1995 to 2003 and whose campaign work had brought him into contact with the Lawrence family. Jonathan Corke, Lawrence family spy snooped on human rights group, Daily Star Sunday, 20 July 2014, accessed 16 November 2014.
  24. Mark Ellison, The Stephen Lawrence Independent Review, UK Government, 6 March 2014, Vol. 1, p.267
  25. Vikram Dodd, Met counter-terror chief moved from post over role in Lawrence scandal, The Guardian, 7 March 2014, accessed 2 May 2014.
  26. Terror police chief in Stephen Lawrence ‘spying’ row back on duty next month, The Guardian, 31 October 2014, accessed 25 November 2014.
  27. Rob Evans, Inquiry into alleged police plot to spy on Stephen Lawrence family expanded, The Guardian, 27 May 2015, accessed 28 May 2015
  28. Mark Ellison, The Stephen Lawrence Independent Review, UK Government, 6 March 2014, Vol. 1, p.244