Neil Woods is a softly spoken man from the sleepy Peak District town of Buxton who’s witnessed some of the greatest criminal horrors perpetrated by Britain’s most notorious gangsters.
The chameleonic cop infiltrated drug cartels across the UK’s inner cities for fourteen years during the so-called golden years of the government’s war on drugs, never spending less than six months with any criminal gang of rapists, murderers and drug lords.
Under the cover of faux criminality, he had swords thrust against his jugular, witnessed beatings, stabbings and acid burnings – all the while feigning friendship with the hundreds of criminals he helped put behind bars for a total of over one thousand years.
Speaking to UNILAD, Neil recalled a face-to-face encounter with Colin Gunn, a man who made millions as the gangland ruler of the Bestwood estate in Nottingham until he was jailed for life for conspiracy to murder in 2006.
I’ve thought my life was over many times. But in the morning of the day I met him, he’d taken a guy into a field, stripped him naked and shoved a shotgun into his mouth as a warning.
It was bizarre. He showed up with his 12-year-old son in the car. He pressed a knife into my groin as he interrogated me and that’s really not somewhere you want to feel a blade. It’s most uncomfortable.
Neil, who dropped out of a business management degree in months, joined the police in 1989 ‘flippantly’, he joked, when a coin toss between travelling the world and applying to the Derbyshire Police came up trumps for the latter life path.
Admittedly, Neil claims he ‘struggled to reason’ with wrong-doers he encountered, and made a ‘crap’ uniformed officer.
But ‘invested in catching bad guys’ and ‘driven by a duty to do the right thing’, a well-read and admittedly ‘naive’ young Neil jumped at the chance to join a drug squad, after mounting media pressure forced the Home Office to combat ‘the mother of all moral panics’ concerning crack cocaine.
Both his evident empathy and rationale would serve him well over the next decade-and-a-half, as he tried to manipulate the country’s worst criminals.
Neil has no training for undercover work and as he puts it, was simply dropped off on a corner and told to ‘have a go at buying some crack’.
Neil told UNILAD just how he coped with the pressure, saying:
The aspects of my personality which made things harder for me as a uniformed cop definitely paid dividends when I was working undercover.
I definitely got scared. But when I’m at risk or under pressure I get a surge of adrenaline, time slows down and I feel I’ve got space to clearly think my way out of something. It’s a great feeling.
I have a great memory, and I’m a really good liar. I really enjoyed the intellectual exercise of lying. The self-development which comes from stretching yourself in that way is quite addictive.
Neil thrived at the forefront of ‘bottom-up undercover work that had never been done in this country’, and was very literally thrown into the deep end of the criminal underbelly.
Later he would get the training to turn him into ‘a master manipulator’. He was told not to act, but ‘to play a different version of yourself’ to avoid being found out by his targets in long, drawn out operations.
Neil emphasised the importance of using aspects of his own personality while undercover, in order to retain his own sense of self and his values while not undercover.
He described how his job ‘weaponised empathy’, adding:
Empathy was important because, as the job became more difficult, you come to rely on the people with who you’d made connections.
The easiest people to manipulate were the most vulnerable. You can bend the vulnerable to your will much easier than you can with those who are not.
But in order to manipulate those people you have to use empathy and try and understand them.
Still, the job required Neil to ‘compromise [his] own ethical centre’, he explained:
I was becoming somebody different. I knew when I was manipulating a vulnerable problematic heroine user, for example, I was putting them at huge risk.
Their lives became substantially worse having met me.
Neil told UNILAD he still suffers with PTSD – or as a former SAS friend of his dubbed it ‘moral damage’ – not because he witnessed horrible things, but because of his impact on those vulnerable former informants.
The former expert liar is now on a redemptive journey to expose the truth about undercover policing, as well as its affects on both the task force and the public, in order to cope with his subsequent mental health issues.
So, Neil has documented his incredible work, and all the different personalities he’s undertaken in Good Cop, Bad War.
His writing studio is a long way from his former life.
Neil travels the country exposing the true nature of undercover police work in Funzing talks and through his work as Chair of LEAP UK, while sitting on the board of LEAP US.
His sense of social justice and ethics is still as strong as it was as the idealistic young boy in uniform.
You’d think Neil worries his whistle-blowing work and public persona puts a price on his head. You’d be wrong.
I’m not worried. Everyone I’ve put in prison, bar one or two, are already out. But having said that, I don’t feel at risk because the violence within the illicit drugs market is part of a business model.
As a conventional detective I arrested a psychopathic, vicious member of Combat 18 for causing criminal damage and firebombing, who hated me and sent me death threats.
But, he added, all the gangsters he knew – including Nosakhere Stephenson, who led the violent Burger Bar Boys to rape people to build their reputation – were ‘pragmatic’ and just wanted to maintain the ‘financial gain’ of the drugs trade, rather than get ‘high risk’ revenge on cops.
Now, Neil feels an urge to expose these dark justice systems, explaining:
When I was doing that work, I was taking a risk to do what I thought was the right thing at the time.
Now I feel duty bound to speak out. If I don’t explain to people what’s happening on the streets of the UK, who’s going to?
If you support current drug policy this is the reality of what you’re supporting. People should be horrified. People should be paying attention.
Speaking of reality, Neil took some time to debunk a few undercover cop myths perpetrated by Hollywood and the small screen, saying he didn’t do ‘anything too terrible’ to keep up appearances.
Neil, in his various guises as a shoplifting drifter, had to take drugs on a number of occasions and shoplift but without intention of committing a crime – always going back to return the items.
After all, he was always a policeman. But no more.
This critically-thinking individual who was once a key player in the mechanism of undercover policing – which he now refers to as the ‘nuclear option’ – is now fighting the ‘destructive’ system, one case at a time.
If you’re suffering with the effects of PTSD, the Samaritans are available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year on their anonymous freephone number: 116 123.
If you have a story to tell contact UNILAD via [email protected]
A former emo kid who talks too much about 8Chan meme culture, the Kardashian Klan, and how her smartphone is probably killing her. Francesca is a Cardiff University Journalism Masters grad who has done words for BBC, ELLE, The Debrief, DAZED, an art magazine you’ve never heard of and a feminist zine which never went to print.