September 9, 2016 by Stephen Bentley
Good Cop Bad War: Book Review
Good Cop Bad War is co-written by a former British undercover cop, Neil Woods with JS Rafaeli. Of course I was keen to read it in light of my own book about my undercover cop days due for publication next Wednesday, September 14, 2016. You can find Good Cop Bad War listed here on Amazon.
I must confess that the book initially irritated me for reasons which become clear in my review below. Gradually the main message of Woods seeped into my head and I did my research. I now agree that the UK should follow Portugal’s ground-breaking example in decriminalizing drug use. There will be more to follow on that point eventually.
My review is based on listening to the Audible version of this book.
Where to start in my review of this book? Rarely these days do I read a book that radically changes my opinions. On the subject of drugs, I have long held an open mind neither advocating the use of illegal drugs nor condemning those that do. I am not a hypocrite. Neil Woods, however transformed my thinking about the “war on drugs.” I am now a firm believer that all countries starting with the UK and US should follow Portugal’s example and decriminalize drugs. Not do away with all sanctions but copy the lead shown by Portugal in putting health first and cease treating the drug user as a criminal. Note, I say user and not the trafficker in drugs.
The author’s message is one of an end to prohibition in its entirety and it is rammed home relentlessly. It has clearly become a crusade for Mr. Woods and I wish him well. Before I continue, I have a disclosure to make. I am now a writer and like the author of this book a former British undercover cop. I have also written a book about my undercover days (Undercover: Operation Julie – The Inside Story) and I suggest that readers interested in this genre of memoirs ought to read both in tandem. Between the two books, it will give you a real sense of what it is to work undercover and a thorough grounding in the history of British drug culture.
Apart from the strong message about decriminalization, Woods also tells a shocking tale of life in the streets of urban Britain, a subterranean life of homeless people and drug addicts. These are the streets he inhabited and the people he associated with in his undercover role. He was a “buy and bust” expert rarely infiltrating the drug scene above the very lowest level of the distribution chain. He was unlike me, where my role involved me infiltrating the higher echelons of the “food chain” to borrow Woods’ phrase. I would not have swapped places with him for “all the tea in China.” I admire how he dealt with the constant squalor and violent street level dealers. The higher up you operate in this chain, the more sophisticated it gets both in the characters of the traffickers and their modus operandi.
That brings me to one of my few gripes about this book. Woods seems to give the impression that he “invented” undercover drugs work. He wrote that undercover work was “so new in those days.” I beg to differ but I say no more about that. My other gripes are mainly based on technical points such as early on in his career the book has him addressing his sergeant as “Sir.” A sergeant is never addressed in that way. That minor issue may just be an example of co-authors falling between the cracks and a lack of proof reading by the one author who should have known better.
I also have a problem with his account of firearms being used by some of these dealers he says he encountered. The fact of firearms possession was never written up in his evidence book. My jaw hung in disbelief at the thought!
One thing became clear about Woods’ personality – he was determined even to the extent of working a case on his rest days. On reflection, is that determination or an obsession? I often pondered whether he would have been better suited to a caring profession such as a social worker.
There are other things I found strange. For example, in the middle of an undercover operation he stayed at a five-star hotel with a posh restaurant dressed like a street drug user. Why? The book is riddled with peculiar anomalies like that which perhaps only someone with my experience would note.
It’s no wonder the author makes an admission of doing “bad things.” The best example is the incident with “Billy.” Woods in his UC role persuaded Billy to “up the ante” by supplying 1 kilo of cocaine instead of his normal street “eighths.” Billy got 5 years!
Woods’ chosen cover often involved him posing as a “speed freak” or user of heroin or crack cocaine. This was an incredibly reckless tactic leaving him open to discovery and worse. It’s one thing giving off the aura of an addict but to go to the lengths Woods went to was courting disaster.
On the subject of discovery, the author mentions on several occasions being subjected to an interrogation by dealers but the book is sadly lacking on detail of exactly how he managed to persuade his interrogators as to his “authenticity.”
It was interesting that the author confessed a need to “learn about people” early in the book. He’s right. Any good police officer, undercover or not, needs to understand human nature. Policing is a people business.
One further device I found irksome was the author’s extrapolation of involvement in the downfall of organised crime gangs (OCGs) by his street-level UC activities. To claim that by scoring one rock in Leicester from a man with Jamaican connections to him uncovering an international drug ring with mention of the DEA thrown in for impact, is one such example.
I ask the reader of my review to also understand I was a criminal defence barrister for 14 years after my undercover days. That may help you understand why I query the author’s statement that a notorious gangster was on bail for murder. Really?
I reiterate the book gets better as it progresses. One can only have the utmost sympathy for the likes of Cammie, Davo and Gary as well as the “sex for sale” girl. I too have met these people and Woods paints a compelling and truthful picture of street people.
Ultimately despite my pickiness over technicalities, I found this an enjoyable and enlightening read. It was both enlightening and horrifying to learn how much the tactic of undercover policing had been overused (and abused) during the tenure of Mr. Woods. Clearly the lessons learned from Operation Julie were ignored. I also found it encouraging to learn that present day undercover officers are now better cared for than in my day. No one should underestimate the real mental stress of working undercover.
Without the technical issues I have mentioned, this would have been a 5* review. Alas, I feel compelled to deduct one star but don’t let that deter you from reading this book.
You may also may be converted to the “gospel” of decriminalization. It should be mandatory reading material for all politicians.
If you have something to say about these issues please visit my Postwaves group and join the debate.
May I also make it clear that I am not associated in any way with Neil Woods, his LEAP organization or his publisher. He has made contact with me expressing his pleasure at my views on drugs reached partly as a result of reading his book.
However, he has also made it clear that he and his organization do not wish to be associated with my book. He appears to be saying that it has some links, connection or supports the UKs Misuse of Drugs Act.
How he reaches that conclusion is beyond me!
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