Operation Countryman was an investigation into police corruption in London in the late 1970s. The operation was conducted between 1978–1982 at a total cost of £3 million and led to eight police officers being prosecuted although none were convicted. The initial allegations of corruption were made by a "supergrass" — an informer occupying an important position in the criminal underworld — who claimed that some officers, including members of the elite Flying Squad (nicknamed "The Sweeny", a shortened version of the Cockney rhyming slang, Sweeney Todd) which dealt with commercial armed robberies, were receiving bribes from criminals in return for warnings of imminent police raids or arrests, the fabrication of evidence against innocent men, and to have charges against guilty criminals dropped.
The investigation initially targeted officers within the City of London Police but spread to include the Metropolitan Police based at Scotland Yard. Codenamed Operation Countryman because of its use of officers from so-called 'rural' police forces of Hampshire and Dorset, the investigating team came to be disparagingly known by London officers as "The Sweedy." The investigation was ordered by the then Home Secretary Merlyn Rees, and began by examining police activity around three major crimes:
- a £175,000 payroll robbery at the offices of the Daily Express newspaper in 1976
- a £225,000 robbery outside the headquarters of Williams & Glyn's Bank, London, in 1977
- a £200,000 payroll robbery at the offices of the Daily Mirror newspaper in 1978. During this robbery, Antonio Castro, a 38-year-old guard working for Security Express, was shot and killed.
As the investigation proceeded, it began to emerge that the corruption was not limited to "a few bad apples" within the forces but was "historically and currently endemic" and "widespread throughout the hierarchical command rather than confined to those below the rank of sergeant."
In August 1978 officers began investigations into corruption within the London police services. The unit was initially accommodated at Camberwell Police Station in south London. But following attempts to interfere with the team's documents, records and evidence, it moved to Godalming Police Station in Surrey outside the Metropolitan Police District.
Operation Countryman faced massive obstruction from both senior management and the lower ranks of the police. Much of the investigation's evidence was obtained by police officers going undercover as police officers.
Asst. Chief Constable Leonard Burt told his investigation team not to pass any evidence it obtained against Metropolitan Police officers to the Met Commissioner, David McNee. Shortly before his retirement in February 1980, the Chief Constable of Dorset Constabulary, Arthur Hambleton, the superior of Burt, made allegations that Countryman had been wilfully obstructed by Commissioner McNee and Director of Public Prosecutions Sir Thomas Hetherington. In May 1980 Leonard Burt returned to Dorset Constabulary and responsibility for Countryman passed to Sir Peter Matthews, Chief Constable of Surrey Constabulary. He ordered that all evidence already compiled during the investigation be passed to the Metropolitan Police to be dealt with by their own internal investigation unit.[page needed]
Questions asked in the British Parliament have, on several occasions, called on the Home Secretary to publicly release the findings of Operation Countryman, but such requests have been refused as these are protected by public interest immunity.
- "Obituary: Leonard Burt". Daily Telegraph (London). 3 December 2010. Retrieved 2012-10-02.
- White, Jerry (2008). London in the Twentieth Century: A City and Its People. London: Vintage. p. 306. ISBN 9781845951269.
- Tendler, Stewart (10 December 1979). "12 'super informers' aid search for corrupt policemen". The Times (60496) (London). p. 3.
- "Inquiry on police must go on, Mr Rees says". The Times (60522) (London). 12 January 1980. p. 2.
- "Metropolitan Police Service — History of the Metropolitan Police Service". Met.police.uk. Retrieved 2009-05-08.
- Box, Steven (1983). Power, Crime and Mystification. London: Routledge. pp. 106–107. ISBN 9780415045728.
- This opinion of forces outside of London had also been expressed during a 1969 investigation into police corruption when Detective Segeant John Symonds of Camberwell CID had been secretly recorded giving advice on how best to conduct a criminal career. Explaining that he would be unable to help the man if he was apprehended committing crime outside of London, Symonds said: "But out in the sticks they are all country coppers aren’t they? All old swedes and that." The inference was that officers from rural forces were "either naive or stupid, and their incorruptibility proved one or the other." ("A Little Firm In A Firm". The Times (57730) (London). 29 November 1969. p. 7. Cox, Barry; Shirley, John; Short, Martin (1977). The Fall of Scotland Yard. Penguin Books. ISBN 9780140523188.)
- Tendler, Stewart (18 April 1980). "Eight arrested after Countryman raids". The Times (60604) (London). p. 2.
- Tendler, Stewart (1 June 1978). "Police praise bravery of man shot dead in robbery". The Times (60316) (London). p. 2.
- Cox, Barry (1977). The Fall of Scotland Yard. Penguin Books. ISBN 0-14-052318-9.
- "Operation Countryman". Commons Hansards Written Answers to Questions. 26 March 1998.