Agent Provocateur

Posted: September 30, 2011 by meritar in Agent Provocateurs

An Overview:

‘Agent Provocateur’ what does this mean exactly?  No, not the lingerie brand.  Obviously it relates, somehow, to police deviance.  This is a relatively obscure term used to describe a certain type of crime. Namely crime that is incited by, or at the hands of police officers.

There is some debate regarding that ‘or…’ part, however.

Typically, an agent provocateur is a police officer that encourages others to commit crime in order for fellow police officers to arrest said guilty parties.  These encouragements can vary depending on circumstance. They could be crimes of themselves.  And the encouragements enacted by the police officer universally stray in to that legal gray area known as entrapment – whether the act of encouraging itself is a crime or not.

A few examples are, perhaps, in order.

An officer, working undercover, infiltrates an organized green peace protest group.  He helps them. Over the course of days, weeks, months, he becomes an integral part of the organization, contributing plans, training, and money.  This group, now, they’re going to attack a power station! They want to destroy it.  But, uh oh, they police have caught on to their plans. Now they are arrested. Now they stand trial.  Now they are acquitted because the police do not wish to reveal the extent of the undercover officer’s involvement with this organization to the public.  The truth is not yet revealed, so it cannot be said whether the officer is guilty of inciting crime or not.  He certainly enabled it, on many different fronts. (source)

An event is happening, a peaceful protest. Except a few individuals are not so peaceful. Not to worry, though, the Sûreté du Quebec is on hand to assist.  Wait, is that really necessary? When it is a small group of individuals trying to cause problems, while the majority insists on peaceful demonstration?  Oh no, those men causing trouble, they are police officers; who are trying to start a riot. (source)

Two examples. Both true (however hyperbolized), one from the UK, one from Canada. The first has not been proven, but the second is the infamous Montebello incident involving anti SPP protesters and Quebec officers.  The Sûreté du Quebec later admitted to attempting to start the riot.

The first cause, though, reveals an interesting conundrum. Undercover officers – what do they mean for police and police deviance?  Maurice Punch (2009), in his book Police Corruption: Deviance, accountability, and reform in policing, tells us time and again to look not at the “bad apples,” but the “bad barrels” and “bad orchards” (p. 48), meaning: look at the situation, circumstance, and environment surrounding police that might lead them to corruption. Undercover officers work with, more often than not, criminals.  To plainly bare-bones it, an officer is expected to infiltrate suspected criminal groups with the intent of gathering evidence (we hope) against these criminals that can be used to bring them to justice.  It is most definitely a dirty job. Getting ‘street cred’ alone usually requires some sort of criminal act.  Morals are pushed and boundaries are reformed. It is natural to assume that somewhere along the line ‘the end justifies the means’ – if it even gets that far. And now, instead of gathering evidence, we have officers planting it. Inciting it. Fabricating it. We have agents of provocateur~ing.

Who’s what of Google:

This is a public criminology project, attempting to compile useful information on the topic of Agent Provocateurs in Canada, with the intent of creating a bastion of information here, on the Internet, which anyone can access.  The overly ambitious purposes are to explore agent provocateurs, understand, perhaps, why these instances occur, and give some constructive criticism.

First, however, I must explore what is already out there. To do this, I have simply input “police+agent+provocateur” into The first page of results was really quite interesting.

  1. Agent Provocateur: the high-end lingerie brand.  Certainly quite relevant to our topic!
  2. EXPOSED! G20 Toronto Police Agent Provocateurs: Canadian. Date: June 2010. Video footage on the theory that police were disguised as black bloc anarchists for the purpose of inciting riots.
  3. Police Provocateurs stopped by union leader at anti SPP protest: Canadian. Date: Aug. 2007. Montebello. Protestors prevent police provocateurs from inciting riot.
  4. G20 police ‘used undercover men to incite crowds’: UK. Date: May 2009. Accusations that plain clothed officers attempting to incite riots and when called out by the crowd disappeared behind police lines after flashing some sort of ID.
  5. Police under fire as trial collapses over ‘agent provocateur’ claims: UK. Date: Jan. 2011. An officer, went undercover in a green protest organization. When six of its members were brought to trial  over plans to sabotage a power station, the prosecution decided to drop the case when the question of PC Mark Kennedy’s involvement in the organization of the sabotage.
  6. The Toronto G20 Riot Fraud: undercover police engaged in purposeful provocation: Canadian. Date: June 2010. Theories that g20 toronto 2010 black bloc was infiltrated by police instigators, because of shoes worn.
  7. London UK Police Agent Provocateurs outed: UK. Date: June 2008. A police constable is outed as instigating a riot during a protest against former president G.W. Bush.
  8. Police Agent Provocateur Mark Kennedy led attack on Irish police at Rally: UK. Date: Jan. 2011. “An undercover British agent encouraged protesters to attack Irish police officers at an EU summit in Dublin, the Guardian newspaper has reported.”
  9. Black Bloc police agent provocateur caught red-handed by AP: UK. Date: 2011. A forum link to a youtube video.
  10. Police Accused of using provocateurs at summit: Canadian. Date: Aug. 2007. More on the incident involving the Sûreté du Quebec at Montebello.
  11. Agent Provocateur: A wiki page: Origin? Date: last modified 23 Sept. 2011. Short blurb on agent provocateurs. Even shorter blurbs on Russia, US, Uk, and Canadian cases involving agent provocateurs.

Let’s summarize: four Canadian links, all about the Montebello incident or involving riot conspiracy.  Five UK links, two of which are about the same undercover officer.  One superfluous lingerie website. And a wikipedia page. It’s difficult to put much stock in a wikipedia page anymore, considering there is one for virtually any and every possible thing out there in this world. And it only had two paragraphs concerning Canada, both of which were about the thrice-mentioned Montebello incident.

References List:

Punch, Maurice. (2009). Police Corruption: Deviance, accountability, and reform in policing. Portland, Oregon: Willan Publishing.

  1. Mike Larsen says:

    This is an interesting introduction to the topic!

    Food for thought: Your post notes that undercover officers are expected to infiltrate suspected criminal groups, and this is certainly sometimes the case. However,given what we know about the history of undercover policing and provocateurs, can we say that police infiltration operations are limited to ‘suspected criminal’ groups? What about those cases in which groups would not have engaged in criminal activity without the intervention of provocateurs?

    You raise the important issue of the ‘ends justifies the means’ rationalization – a common feature of ‘noble cause’ or ‘Dirty Harry’ accounts of corruption. What would the ‘ends’ of an agent provocateur be?

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