Christian Plowman (Class of 1991)
Christian Plowman was a Metropolitan Police officer for 16 years, in detective and undercover roles, including infiltrating Eastern European crime gangs. When he retired, he wrote a book about the experience: ‘Crossing the Line: Losing Your Mind as an Undercover Cop’. Christian now works as a consultant for conservation charities in central Africa, working with local law enforcement to combat the criminal gangs behind wildlife trafficking in countries like Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo, Madagascar and Rwanda.
Are you mainly out to protect wildlife – or to target criminals who happen to be involved in wildlife crime?
My interest is less in conservation per se and more on the intricacies of organised crime, especially trans-national organised crime. I find the crossover between general criminality and the illegal wildlife trade very interesting.
I find lots of aspects of wildlife trafficking absolutely intriguing when I relate it to my previous experience dealing with drug trafficking. It’s a type of crime that’s not taken as seriously as drugs or guns, so criminal enterprises can profit significantly from it at very low risk. That’s one of the aspects that I think is most important. I try to educate people that, notwithstanding the potential loss of iconic species like elephants and rhinos, there are some bad guys making a lot of money out of this and thumbing their nose at the authorities. So education of law-enforcement agencies is an important part of what I do.
The illegal ivory trade seems well known to us – what other less well known wildlife crime should we know about?
Maybe pangolin scales. They are incredibly profitable in large amounts and are poached in Africa and Asia – the scales are removed from the animals in a particularly nasty way and then sold in south-east Asia where they are seen to have some medicinal benefit, which is obviously not the case. The pangolin is the most poached and trafficked wild mammal in the world and it’s a huge market. We see big seizures of ivory and pangolin scales within the same shipments.
The ivory trade is still very significant, although the frontline evidence shows that a lot of the ivory trade comes from old ivory that has been corruptly removed from government stockpiles in various countries. So we are not seeing the amount of dead elephants that the size of the trade would suggest. But it’s still a significant issue.
Then there’s rhino horn and other very niche species that traffic at great profit. There’s a huge illegal spider trade: particular species of spiders only found in one location worldwide can get trafficked across the world, often to central Europe, to spider collectors and they will sell for tens of thousands of pounds per animal.
Is the market mainly medicinal?
There’s two trades. The traffickers in the live animal trade – spiders, apes, big cats – are specialists. They will only trade in a particular species. The second type – the groups involved in ivory, rhino, pangolins – are de facto bad guys. They will traffic ivory, drugs, humans, arms. There’s different levels of criminality but the profits are significant in both.
How often are you in Africa?
Pre-Covid, probably just over half the year, in various trips. Post-Covid I’ve only been out four or five times.
What do you enjoy about this work and your previous police work in London? Is it the adrenalin or is it the satisfaction of doing something good?
It’s a combination of the two. In this job, the moments of adrenalin are few and far between but there are some occasions when it gets quite interesting and exciting. I suppose my satisfaction comes from thinking I’m doing something good.
I feel I can use my skills from police work to help these organisations do their job as well as they can. And it is challenging and stressful and time-consuming – but that’s part of the attraction of it as well. I seem to perform better when I am faced with difficulties.
Are there moments when smugglers are caught red-handed after a long investigation? Is there a pay-off moment?
Disappointingly… not really! I have been involved in many seizures of illegal wildlife… but we try to step away from the enforcement stage for various reasons.
I’m not a big fan of seizures, I’m more a fan of catching the individuals behind the trafficking. That’s a slow process. An organised trafficking network will be sending multiple shipments – if one of those gets seized, it doesn’t matter too much to them. You need to get to the next level.
How do police methods vary between your current work and your past career in London?
Some African countries have sophisticated policing capacity but not the ones I work in. No CCTV, no DNA, no fingerprinting and not many officers with investigative skills.
Also, I’m working in countries that use the French judicial system and that throws up its own challenges. The investigations are led by a judge, so the law enforcement agencies have very little autonomy. Sometimes cases get stalled or dropped. There’s often issues with corruption.
It is a massive challenge. Maybe I should change my job! But we are making some progress.
You’ve worked undercover, working against organised crime… Does Line of Duty give us a glimpse of what your world was like?
Line of Duty is embellished realism. Loads of details are wrong. A small regional police force having a massive anti-corruption department with its own armed officers… is nonsense. And if only all police buildings were like AC12s offices, it would be very nice.
In the first episode of last series the phrase ‘CHIS (Covert Human Intelligence Source) handler’ [ie police officer who is a point of contact for an informant] was used and people were in uproar on social media asking what it meant. Well, I used to be a CHIS handler for three years, so I enjoyed all that!
I’ll quite happily watch police shows. I really like the fly-on-the-wall ones, like 24 Hours in Police Custody. They give – of course - a much more realistic viewpoint – except the boring bits are still edited out.
What age did you get the idea of becoming a police officer?
My mum says I was keen on being a policeman and catching robbers from when I was at primary school. When I was at City it wasn’t really in my head. One of the things I considered as a teenager– because I learned Russian – was the intelligence or diplomatic service. I really liked the idea of being a spy, although I didn’t really understand what the security services actually did.
Ultimately, when I was 21 and I had a child and I needed to get a responsible job and I joined the police – I didn’t expect to be there for very long but I was there for 16 years.
What was your first experience of work?
I worked from 14. I didn’t come from a particularly well-off family. I worked at an estate agent as an office junior at the weekend and in the holidays. I worked at a hairdresser, as a Saturday boy, sweeping up hair. After my A levels I continued to work – Pizza Hut, places like that. I did do work experience when I was at City. I went to a translation agency; I wanted to be an interpreter for the UN. I remember being disappointed I didn’t like it as much as I had hoped.
How did you come to be at City?
I was at primary school in Tottenham. When I was eight, I was moved up a year and the headmaster suggest I try entrance exams for a couple of independent schools including CLS. I was quite chilled out about the whole thing. I applied through the assisted places and my fees were paid for up to A-Levels which was pretty cool.
Do you remember your first day?
Very vaguely. My form teacher was Mr Hart. I remember feeling nervous. I remember going on the tube: my mum and dad had made me do some dummy runs in the summer holidays. It was a really formative thing, travelling alone in the city, on the tube, to get to school. That journey to and from school was very important. You picked up a certain level of independence and street savvy even at 11 or 12.
Which teachers inspired you?
Mr Reardon, my German and French teacher and also my form tutor in Sixth Form, was fantastic. Peter Allwright taught me Russian - we were the first class to do Russian at GCSE – and he was brilliant, an absolute legend. Alastair Laidlaw, our French teacher for GCSES was fantastic. Those two were two of the best teachers I ever had. I did well in my Russian A level and only got a C in French – and the irony is that French is the only foreign language I speak now with any regularity.
What was special about their teaching?
They had a very evident passion for their subjects. They were very forgiving too. A mistake was not the end of the world, so long as you could communicate. Their focus was on making yourself understood and that helped you learn more and grow into the language. They were very chilled-out teachers. You would never go into one of their classes and think, ‘Oh no I’m not going to enjoy this.’ They created this very laidback atmosphere. Both of them were quite young at the time which was probably a factor.
Which extra-curricular activities did you enjoy at school?
I got involved a bit in drama and early on, I was involved in the choir: thinking back, some of the stuff I did was incredible. We sang at St Paul’s Cathedral and some of us were selected for a huge production of a Leonard Bernstein musical, called Mass, , with the Guild Hall School of Music and Drama. Months of rehearsals, then four performances. A proper production. And then Leonard Bernstein turned up on the last day! I didn’t appreciate that at the time. My mum told me he’d written West Side Story, which I’d never heard of. It all seems a bigger deal to me now than maybe I appreciated at the time. I still have the soundtrack on my Spotify.
At Christmas, we’d go round all the hospitals in central London and sing carols and they’d give us mince pies.
Some of the stuff, I look back and I can’t believe I did it.
Your Met Police life was a very tough life. Were you always a tough character?
I’m not a particularly tough person. Maybe it comes back to a personality defect: I like to put myself in challenging or uncomfortable situations. Maybe on a certain level, City prepared me for that. It was certainly a new, unfamiliar environment for me.
I really enjoyed City but there was definitely a sensation that I had to fit into its way of life and its mix of people. The plaques, the statues, the busts, the honours boards… it was like nothing I’d been involved with before. It wasn’t like a traditional public school in any way but those early conceptions that you are going into a place that’s grander than what you are used to does stay with you.
What personal qualities would a 15-year-old need to follow your career path now?
You have to have an understanding of and empathy for other people. That’s by far the most important thing. Whether from personal experience or simply from being open-minded about other people’s situations. Secondly you need to be able to communicate effectively – and to adapt the way you communicate with different people. I think City is a good place to hone those skills. Thirdly, common sense – you can learn common sense, even on your commute into CLS. After two years we were all London underground ninjas – if the tube was closed we knew all the alternative routes to get home.
What impact did City have on your life?
City gave me a good communication ability. There was a huge mix of people at the school but there was a particular way of behaving and talking to people that made it work for everyone as a community.
I’d be at school playing Eton Fives, then, later, back in Tottenham talking to my mate from primary school who’d just been arrested. Two different worlds. City helped me to talk to different people in an appropriate way. That’s stood me in great stead in police work.
I really believe if I hadn’t gone to CLS I wouldn’t be here now. I only do the job I do now because I can speak French. When I was in the police I worked with European police combatting Eastern European crime – and the only reason I did that was because I spoke Russian – which I only spoke because I went to City. I give City credit for lots of things in my life.