Ebury Press, €18 hardback
Review: Cormac O’Keeffe
Having a sword pressed to your throat in the course of your work might be a sign that you should reconsider your job.
Not that it stopped Neil Woods.
Neither did being almost deliberately run over by a car, having a knife pushed against his back, or being repeatedly headbutted by a group of heavies.
But, it’s fair to say, Neil’s job is not your average occupation.
For a staggering 14 years, between 1993 to 2007, he was an undercover agent for a British police force.
According to the blurb for his book Good Cop, Bad War he was “the first and best of his kind”.
As the title suggests, it was a mission which he gradually became to believe was not only unachievable but fundamentally wrong. The mission in question was the so-called ‘war of drugs’.
It’s a debate that has come in from the fringes to the mainstream in recent years.
Neil’s story is one that has been little heard in that debate, primarily because his line of work is shrouded in secrecy and some controversy.
He provides a compelling argument against the so-called war, although it is up to the reader to determine if it is a convincing one.
Neil’s book, written in conjunction with JS Rafaeli, details the human costs of the war, seen through the impact inflicted on, for want of a better word, the ‘footsoldiers’.
These are the users and user-dealers, through whom undercover agents must go, and must exploit, in order to get to the people above them – those at the middle and higher ranks.
These individuals are expendable, and in many cases are essentially ‘entrapped’ into committing crime.
But more than that, these individuals have their safety, and very life, put at risk – because if and when the dealers above them are caught, they will be blamed for assisting the agent.
“While I may have put a few of the gang away for a while,” Neil writes after one successful operation, ‘I had done absolutely nothing to address the situation that actually gave them their power. And, along the way, I had made a lot of vulnerable lives even more unbearable.”
And there’s more, he says. Because of the work of police – and the fear gangs have of undercover agents – bosses impose ever greater levels of intimidation and violence to protect their empire.
This, in turn, inflicts greater misery and terror on users, potential witnesses and entire communities.
Not only that, police officers are vulnerable to corruption.
Neil provides a great public service in giving a voice to these addicts and addict-dealers and gives us a moving insight into their grim and grinding, and often dangerous, daily lives.
He also paints a picture of the scale of economic devastation and social neglect of whole areas of the East Midlands, from Derby to Leicester, to Northampton and Nottingham.
It’s not that Neil doesn’t show the benefits of his work: truly despicable gang bosses were jailed by virtue of his bravery.
But to Neil, this does not balance out the costs. To him, the end does not justify the means.
This is not a dry book – in fact, there is humour throughout and plenty of entertainment and genuine thrills – and his tone is chatty and breezy.
Neil lived to tell the tale, but at a considerable price. He suffered severe stress and was only at the end diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. His work contributed to domestic strife and the collapse of his first marriage.
He went from “cop to campaigner” and is now part of a group, LEAP UK, calling for legalisation.
This is not a cool and balanced pro and con analysis of the debate. But it is a fascinating and telling insight, one that warrants reading and reflection by policy makers, shapers and practitioners.
This review first appeared in the Irish Examiner on 2 September 2017.