The occupational hazards of being an undercover cop are many and varied, and often involve pain. “Roughing up your face with a cheese grater was very common,” recalls Christian Plowman, a former undercover policeman, who passed himself off as everything from a junkie to a member of the Russian mafia.
“I invented a story that I had a Russian family who were all dead,” he says. “And to boost my credibility, I thought I’d get some Russian-themed tattoos. It seemed to do the job but it’s quite a high price to pay, scarring your body.”
But perhaps the highest price paid by undercover officers (UCO) is to their personal lives, where the strain of maintaining a secret life frequently results in relationship breakdown and divorce.
“The job is brutal on family life,” says Plowman, who had two failed relationships during his 16 years under cover with the Metropolitan Police. “It’s a huge pressure keeping secrets from the people you love,” he says. “I always say that I don’t blame the job for my relationships breaking down but, if I’m honest, it must have been a factor. You’re using different identities on a daily basis and then you go back to your ‘normal life’. It’s very difficult to adjust.”
“Lots of people in this job are not leading just double lives – they’re leading quadruple lives. They might have three different identities and then they have to go back to their real home.”
The reality of leading such a complex life is explored in the new, Leeds-set ITV crime drama Black Work, starring Sheridan Smith. In the three-part drama, Smith plays policewoman Jo Gillespie, who attempts to discover the truth behind the mysterious death of her husband, who she discovers has concealed his life as an undercover cop.
Plowman can see why film and TV find his former world so gripping. “What fascinates people is the level of deception, and the fact that there’s a fine line between pretending to be someone else and actually becoming that person. There’s a danger of crossing the line between good and bad.”
For Plowman, the secrecy also put a huge strain on his relationship with his three children and one stepchild, and he’s dedicated his 2013 memoir, Crossing the Line, to them. “That’s the thing that annoys me the most,” he says with unconcealed bitterness. “I don’t know if it was the nature of the work itself, the amount of time spent away from home or working ridiculous hours, but really I should have devoted more time to my kids.”
Naturally, he felt the need to protect his children from the reality of the job. “Young kids are very inquisitive but what can you say to them? You’re not going to sit there and say, ‘Well today I went and had a conversation with a paedophile.’ You just have to make out that the job is cool, like pretending to be James Bond. But obviously the reality is far removed from that.”
Complicating things further, some of Plowman’s undercover colleagues in the Met formed relationships with women in the groups they have been sent to infiltrate. The role of undercover police became a hot-button topic in 2011, when officer Mark Kennedy was revealed to have infiltrated a group of climate-change protestors and engaged in sexual relationships with at least two of the group.
“That was quite uncommon in my experience,” says Plowman. “In some of the longer-term jobs I know that officers would have flings with people, not necessarily those that are targets, but who are on the periphery of the operation. It was never part of the operation.”
“I don’t agree with it personally, but it happens, albeit not usually to the extent of Mark Kennedy. I worked with Mark and I know what kind of person he is and I’m sure it would have been chewing him up inside.”