Wednesday, 2 November 2011

The Enfield Crime Squad. Allegedly.

Allegedly. Was the word really even in common use before Have I Got News For You? I'm not sure it was, and I am equally sure that it is not one I have regularly had recourse to. But that was then, and this is now. One of the difficulties in commenting from afar rather than knowing from the thick of it is that I have to rely on information which I cannot completely verify. So all of this post is, as usual, what I think, but what I think in this case is based upon things I have heard and been told, but which I do not know for sure to be accurate. So just think 'allegedly' before you read each paragraph and we should be fine.

It was only a few years ago, maybe 10 or 15 at most, when Enfield, the Borough of my birth and childhood, was treated with a little disdain within the Police. Those of us fortunate (!) enough to work in the tougher neighbouring Borough of Haringey thought they had it easy there. No real crime, no real public order, nice people who made you cups of tea. Didn't the main radio set in Yankee 5 have a snooze button?

As inner London's problems migrated ever-outwards, after the turn of the century it became obvious that there were no soft Boroughs in the Met any more, and Enfield was no exception. What had been a cosy posting for years suddenly became populated by gangs, robbery and violence. As the Borough rose to the top of the Met's murder charts Edmonton became known as 'Shank Town', while one street earlier this year was still rejoicing in the nickname 'Stab Alley'.

Somebody within the local police presumably thought enough was enough, that the growing gangs and rising crime rates were unacceptable and that tough action was required. How this was devised and 'operationalised' (see - I learnt some spectacular made-up words in the Met) I am not sure, and is pretty much irrelevant. The outcome was that the Borough Crime Squad was, by 2009, the most successful in the capital. Its arrest and conviction rates were high, crime rates were falling. Robust and effective enforcement, combined with practical cooperation with the local authority to prevent crime, was slowly turning the tide and making the Borough a palpably better place to live and work in.

The senior officers in Enfield were apparently aware of the Crime Squad's methods and gave at least tacit approval to them. And why wouldn't they, given the successful results? There was no question of anything illegal taking place, and certainly no question of personal enrichment or gain for the officers involved. They were, it has been suggested to me, a bunch of good young coppers, working hard to put away criminals and make their Borough a safer place.

One of their more unusual practices was to use property seized from their criminals. There is no suggestion this was for any purpose other than to make their jobs easier - for example, seized vehicles may have been used to conduct observations from, mobile phones used within the office to make covert or unattributable calls, TV sets to view CCTV recordings. Essentially, goods which might ordinarily have sat in a storeroom or compound pending a trial were used to help the fight against those who had stolen them, or bought them with illicit funds.

Now somebody took exception to this. Reports have described her or him as a 'whistleblower'. I think this is unfair and misleading. Most of us will understand that term as a co-worker reporting malpractice. That is far from what happened in Enfield; it seems that to a man and woman the operational officers and staff within the Borough were supportive of the Crime Squad - and why wouldn't they have been, given the real benefits the community was deriving from them. The so-called whistleblower in this case was, it seems, a support-worker from a central department outside of the Borough, who decided to tell their own boss about it, for either personal or professional reasons.

This led to an investigation which found very little evidence of wrongdoing, and was petering out when it was decided to search the Crime Squad's base (as well as the homes of 14 officers). It was this search, in February 2009, which uncovered the now infamous 'hard-stop' video from some 8 months previously. An incident about which, I believe, no complaint of malpractice was made at the time by the young criminal who was the subject of the arrest. With renewed vigour the honorary Detectives of the Met's Directorate of Professional Standards set about building a case, and went to interview a number of criminals who the Crime Squad had convicted. One of these alleged that his head had been held over a sink of water during his arrest, though video footage of the arrest seems to show him completely dry throughout. This allegation, somehow, was leaked to the media - possibly through somebody connected with the Metropolitan Police Authority - as 'waterboarding' and the whole thing gained an unexpected and unwarranted momentum.

Around this time also the Crime Squad received an anonymous tip-off that a lock-up garage had a stash of stolen goods. They rightly got a warrant and indeed discovered a veritable Aladdin's Cave. All the electrical gear was properly seized, and enquiries to trace its owners began. This proved pretty simple, as there were serial numbers and other markings which quickly led the officers to a hire company, who were as bemused by the enquiry as the officers were by their reply. The equipment wasn't stolen, indeed it was all being leased by the Metropolitan Police - from an address where many of the D.P.S. teams are based. Presumably this ham-fisted attempt at a sting had been intended to prove the corruption of the Crime Squad officers. Instead, I am told, since they had properly recorded all the goods and then proceeded to try to trace their owners, it just proved their honesty.

I have no idea how much the lease of this stash of electric gear cost, but it is presumably a drop in the ocean in the context of the overall cost of the investigation into the Enfield Crime Squad. Figures bandied in the press today range between £5 million to more then £12 million. And while we may not have heard the last of it, all it seems to have uncovered is a few officers whacking a car - which had been stolen in an aggravated (that is, with weapons and/or violence) burglary, in order to arrest the driver who had at least dishonestly handled the car, and was driving whilst disqualified.

Which they shouldn't have done with baseball bats - though presumably if they had used officially-issued batons or asps would have been OK. I say that because one has only to watch one of the plethora of 'PoliceCameraActionTrafficCopsWithCameras' programmes on any number of Freeview channels any evening of the week to understand that it is a common tactic used by officers at the end of pursuits. And perfectly lawful and justified, we are told, because of the need to shock the driver into instant submission before the car, or indeed any other object, can be used as a weapon. Which is presumably what one might expect an aggravated burglar to do, that being the sort of person the officers had every reason to suspect to be driving the car.

So, a little 'over-aggressive' (the Met's own words) policing is discovered at this huge cost. I have enough family and friends, outside of the police, who still reside in Enfield to gauge the feeling there. They were mightily glad that such robust and decisive policing was going on in their community. I imagine the practices have been changed somewhat; I don't know how Enfield's crime and detection figures are looking as a result.

But what I do know is that we are staring, pan-London and indeed nationally, at a reduction in police numbers due to budgetary constraints. It is a reasonable approximation to call the annual cost of a new Constable £50,000 when one adds up salary, training and equipment. Which means we could get 100 PCs for £5 million or 240 PCs for £12 million. Makes you think, doesn't it? Allegedly.

Thursday, 11 August 2011

It's about more than just cuts

This post is too long for a tweet, but may be quite short for a blog. I just want to present an idea of a different perspective on the police cuts debate.

Overall, I am a supporter of cutting public expenditure; there is no alternative given the horrible state Messrs. Brown and Darling left us in. And I have some notion of equality which says that what needs to be done must be done without exception, the police included.

That said, I do not want to see policing quality reduced - I am not sure how far it can fall anyway whilst still being worthy of the name. I quite understand the associations, commentators and Opposition MPs seizing the opportunity from the last week's events to make a case for stopping the cuts but I have little faith they will succeed. Or at least there is a distinct opportunity that they won't.

Why not then also have a Plan B; using the same facts, the same public opinion and the same fear as to the future to campaign for something which might be much more achievable. That would be shifting the focus from palliatives to prosecutions, from counselling to conviction - indeed, using what became a dirty word in policing around 15 years ago, but one used in the House by David Cameron today, from Service back to Force.

This, I think, would include, but not be limited to:

  • Restoring the right of a Custody Officer to authorise charges - saving thousands in CPS lawyers' wages and ensuring that many more of the guilty actually face a court
  • Strict guidelines on when a criminal can be cautioned - and how often
  • Repeal or wholesale modification of the our Human Rights Act - not, as promised by the Government, trying to get it changed at source by amending the ECHR - to prevent some of its perverse effects
  • Removing all targets for detections, which skew activity away from what might be needed
  • Exempting Police Forces from the provisions of the Health & Safety legislation, reversing the dreadfully paralysing effects of the Met's corporate conviction
I am sure there are many other measures which would help, these are rather off the cuff, but you get the idea.

Essentially, the Government, Opposition and certainly the public as a whole are asking for more robust policing. Those in the fortunate position of being able to lobby at this time should not be blinkered by the cuts. Concentrating solely on them gives the Associations the appearance of a Trades Union, concerned with the well-being of their members above all else. Police Officers are better than that; they should grab the chance to make a real difference to policing - and thus to the communities they serve - so that some lasting good can at least be born out of the terrible last few days.







Monday, 8 August 2011

Just like 1981? Yes a bit, but mostly No.




It was meant to be my long-weekend off as a young PC at Tottenham. It was July 1981. My leave was cancelled because the tough and unpopular measures necessary to correct the nation's financial plight caused by the previous Labour Government's mis-management had sparked riots. At least that was the official reason; to many it looked like opportunistic acquisitive crime. So perhaps there really is nothing new under the sun. But let's look back through my memories of that day in a little more detail.

At about 8pm, as the Grey-Green 52-seater - containing 20 or so coppers and an impressively gung-ho driver hired along with his vehicle - crossed the Seven Sisters Road by Finsbury Park Station we all heard the crash from our right. A set of step-ladders protruded from the smashed window of Unwin's off-licence in Station Place, and we could see at least half-a-dozen figures in the shop filling pockets and bags with spirits and cigarettes. But tonight was going to be different. The rioting which had continued across towns and cities for four or five days was about to stop. Whether it was pressure from their exhausted foot soldiers below, or their political masters (well, mistress ultimately) above, our leaders had instructed us to play harder, to meet force with force, to take any and every prisoner.

It wasn't pretty. Truncheons drawn, we entered and the resistance we encountered received some savage retaliation. Nine men were arrested; every stolen item - none of which had actually made it out of the store - was recovered and accompanied its thief. As the prisoners were loaded on to the coach they continued to struggle; officers continued to beat the futile resistance from them.

Shortly afterwards I sat in the charge room at Holloway Police station, taking personal details from my prisoner, a 30 year-old Jamaican whose name I remember to this day. He had lost his shoes, his shirt and the shape of his nose in the battle. He was bloody from head to toe, front and back. Though I knew I hadn't caused any of his numerous and very visible injuries, something in me wished I had. Despite having been enjoined never to tolerate any other officer touching my prisoner, I knew the situation - not just here, but across the country - needed extreme measures of such a nature that this young, inexperienced and essentially peaceable officer had neither the confidence nor the courage to effect. But I also knew how frightened I had been, for myself, for my colleagues and my city, and was intelligent enough to know that something had to be done.

Then every police officer in the crowded room stood up. I followed suit and saw a tall, impeccably smart man in the uniform of a Commander, cap on, swagger stick in hand. His gaze fell on my prisoner, I saw him take in every detail of the man's bloodied body. The Commander came over and asked, "Is this your prisoner, Son?" I almost simply nodded, but not wanting to add to my difficulties by being disrespectful, replied, "Yes, Sir" - as confidently as my sinking heart would let me. "Burglary, looting an off-licence" I added quickly, hoping rather than expecting that this would at least justify the arrest. He smiled just a little, placed his brown-gloved hand on my shoulder and said, "Well done, well done," with a warmth which was as welcome as it was unexpected.

The next morning it was a Saturday court at Highbury Corner. From the previous night's rioting there were 42 in-custody prisoners charged with burglary, theft, danage and assault. There was one Stipendary Magistrate, who cleared the whole list in slightly over 90 minutes. My man was typical in that he pleaded guilty and was immediately sentenced to a couple of months imprisonment. No social enquiry reports, no adjournment for the Probation Service to interview him, just go to jail. Get off our streets, all of you, if you cannot behave - that was the unmistakeable message. The tide had turned, the community was fighting back, through those appointed and paid to protect them, and protect them we did. Violence was met with violence and crimes, all crimes, were met with prosecution and swift justice. The belief was that the rioters, quite simply, didn't want a fight and didn't want to go to prison.

Sadly, it is evident that neither of these dissuading factors is easily available to our officers today. First, watch the helicopter footage on the TV. Watch how ponderous the police response seems to be, waiting until the the 'dynamic risk assessment' allows action. Wait for the shields, the crash hats, the Tasers. A much-respected Commander in the 1990s used to conclude briefings saying, "The Metropolitan Police is into participative management, but it has no place in a public order situation". Where we once had quick decisive and instinctive leadership we now have decision by committee, by numbers and manuals, slow, cautious decisions made by managers scared stiff of being second-guessed after the event.

Secondly, as we have seen in other public disorder situations, notwithstanding the seriousness of the circumstances, the Police cannot offer violence back now without an uproar, an IPCC inquiry, a trial even. CCTV, mobile phone videos and 24 hour news will all be available to those who have an agenda to prevent the police taking the necessary robust action. The masked men and women, and more especially those who support them as a matter of principle, insist anonymity cuts only one way, and they disseminate their knowledge so usefully as evidenced by this London flyer.

But most significantly perhaps, our over-sophisticated, defendant-biassed, lawyer-enriching and victim-neglecting Criminal Justice System just cannot move with the speed the situation demands. A CPS lawyer, cautious to adhere to the myriad rules and guidance - laid down by those who professed to be tough on crime - will need statements, forensics, further enquiries and a 'realistic prospect of conviction' . This will require our rioter to be released on bail pending further enquiries - provided of course that the lawmakers and law-interpreters have decided that Police can bail suspects after all - before any charge is laid. The rioter will of course have Legal Aid, and almost certainly be advised not to plead guilty at he first appearance. I doubt the court would deal with four cases in 90 minutes, let alone 40.

So, combine an over-stretched, under-funded and under-trained Police Service with politicised, partial scrutiny on an unprecedented scale, mix in an excessively bureaucratic and risk-averse CPS and put it all within the context of our 21st century risk-assessing, H&S worshipping, backside-covering police leadership and what do we get? 215 rioters arrested, almost 90% of them not charged. A teenage rampage with police powerless to prevent them, powerless to control them and clueless as to how to regain the streets for the communities they claim to serve.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Whence come you?

'More resources' for the hacking enquiry were recommmended by the Select Committee, has this translated into 15 more detectives? Probably not, it is much more likely this is a Met decision in light of the increased number of enquiries being made of the Weeting team, and would probably have happened whatever the committee report had said. So can we expect to see more?

To investigate the whole hacking business properly is an immense task; and properly is how it must now be done. That means exploring lines of enquiry which would not normally be followed. The difficulty is that, in normal circumstances, large investigations will often be constrained by what is practicable. Where many offences are disclosed a management decision will regularly be taken to restrict the enquiries (and hence the resources needed) to just enough necessary to prove the scope of offending, and to attract a suitable punishment. There is no other way, normally, to manage the investigation and also the ensuing trial. An indictment can become simply too large and complicated for a jury to consider. Were it not for such sensible decisions serial offenders like Levi Bellfield and Delroy Grant would be on trial for most of the next ten years - assuming the investigations were completed in their lifetimes.

You notice, though, that I keep using the word 'normally'. Very exceptionally the context of an investigation changes, and it becomes desirable not only to convict the guilty but also to prove publicly that enquiries have been thoroughly and completely carried out. While the original hacking enquiry might have started out as 'normal', the ever-increasing storm of the last two weeks means that Operation Weeting is now very firmly in the 'exceptional' category. It simply will not do for any stone to remain unturned, no possible offence to be missed. So every one of the 4000-odd names will be looked at to see if any attempt was made to hack their voicemail, and if so, each one will be investigated as a separate offence - undoubtedly many victims will have been hacked several times, each one a new offence. So the total number of crimes to investigate might well be into four figures, and it is hardly any wonder that 45 officers have so far managed only to speak to 170 or so victims. Franky that is quite good going . Never mind 8 hours, it will be amazing if this is wrapped up in 8 months.

So how might more resources be found? The Government could throw some money the Met's way, and as welcome as it might be in these straitened times, it won't be the complete answer. There is a limit to how much overtime officers can perform before becoming tired, stale and less effective. The answer must be more officers, but not just any old (or more accurately, young) cop will do. The expectation ought to be that experienced detectives are used, and the only two areas of the Met with those officers with numbers sufficient to be able to stand significant abstractions are the Murder Squads and Counter-terrorism. Of course the Murder squads already have an entire team struck off for the Madeline McCann review, and who knows what work is ongoing within Counter- terrorism? While both Commands may be relatively under-stretched at the moment, as we know all too well that situation can change virtually overnight. I am sure there is no greater priority in the Met at the moment than hacking - nor should there be, as a complete, transparent and successful resolution of that investigation is crucial to the process of rebuilding trust and confidence in the Met; essential if that wonderful but all too-often flawed organisation is to recover from what must be its lowest point for 40 years.

But in amongst all this, I wonder how fair it is on Londoners. The Met has traditionally taken on some national functions, notably protection of the Royal Family, as well as getting involved in other ad hoc issues in which it has no geographical interest - the McCann review, for example. Is the hacking investigation really a matter just for the Capital? Leaving aside the slightly esoteric and ultimately irrelevant debate as to where online or other telecoms-based offences actually take place, aren't the victims spread across the country and therefore several police boundaries? Isn't the whole thing anyway now one of national interest and importance? Perhaps the pain ought to be shared more widely, perhaps the additional resources the Select Committee called for should be drawn from other forces, so that other commitments in London are affected less and any that arise in future can be met without affecting the Weeting team.

It is perhaps an attractive solution, but one which the Met I knew and loved would resist on the basis it wanted to sort out its own mess. That attitude might be laudable, were it based upon a genuine desire to make amends rather than a degree of arrogance. But I think the current state of its reputation demands a new, more open and more humble, approach.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Yes Sir, No Sir, Two bags full Sir.

I know John Yates well enough to consider him shrewd, decent and honest. I would have thought him the last person to be unconvincing before a Select Committee, but for the first and quite probably last time in find myself in complete agreement with Keith Vaz. (Incidentally, do you agree that having Mr. Vaz in charge of an investigation into corruption is at the same time astounding and brilliant?)


I had expected AC Yates to have been firm, eloquent and impressive. What we saw and heard was none of these things, so I have tried to work out why. The alternatives posed by most as this incredible tale has unfolded have been the traditional choice of 'cock-up or conspiracy'. But finding the former out of the question and the latter very difficult to believe of him, I have looked for a third way, and it just might be - and I sincerely hope I am correct - that it is a combination of the man's decency and the current Met culture of apology without blame, to which I have alluded in past blog posts.

To understand this possibility one must take a realistic view of how these investigations, even the most high-profile ones, are conducted. Very few of the operational decisions are made by the figurehead ACPO officer, even 'Yates of the Yard'. Instead they are reported to by junior officers on all but the highest-level strategic issues. They must trust their officers, of course, and will question and probe to ensure they are happy with progress, but they cannot and do not look at every document, every statement, themselves. If they did, why have the junior officers anyway? Given the back-covering environment in which police officers are forced these days to operate it is inconceivable that the decisions and their supporting reasons are not documented. Every investigation has a policy log, and when the officers who surely advised John Yates that there was no further mileage in the hacking inquiry did so, their reasoning would have been there in black and white, or at least an email or several.

So when he said in his weekend interview that he shouldn't, as an Assistant Commissioner, be expected to sift through two binbags of evidence himself, he was quite correct. But somebody should have, and I suspect somebody else decided not to, or at least not to ask a few Detective Constables to do so.He or she then took a punt, and assured the Boss that there was nothing in there. If John Yates is to appear convincing - for his own sake and that of the Met he must – he will have to bite the bullet and explain, in detail, naming names and producing documents. However distasteful this may be to a man of integrity and who treats his juniors with the utmost respect, it is the only way forward; in such dirty fashion lies the only way properly to come clean.

Because the blame cannot be pushed to News International, no matter how obstructive or uncooperative they might have been. John Yates is good enough a copper to know that, surprise surprise, criminals tend not to cooperate, not to confess and not to hand over evidence on a plate. And never two binbags full. They lie, cheat, hide and destroy their tracks and it is up to the investigators, despite all this, to find the proof and make sure justice is served. The notion that somehow News International ought to be above that, particularly in the context of this whole affair, is, I am afraid, as naïve as it is unconvincing.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Cash for answers?

While I was a police officer I gave lots of information to journalists, throughout Fleet Street and the broadcast media. None of them gave me a penny in return; indeed there was never any suggestion that payment might be involved. I suspect that each of them knew me well enough to appreciate that the second payment was even mooted it would be the very last conversation I had with them.

Since I retired I have been paid by a number of media organisations; in every case it has been in return for my commentary, my opinion or technical assistance. I have maintained a rigid stance that I will be paid only for what I create in my mind post-retirement, and that nothing else is on offer.

I sincerely hope that both the serving officers who sold information and the journalists who sanctioned payment will be properly dealt with for the corruption in which they have been complicit. That is necessary if the reputations of these two sometimes competing, sometimes symbiotic, often infuriating but ultimately always essential institutions are to be in any way preserved.

The baby and bath-water interface must be managed carefully. The release of information by officers, as I always did, could and should be encouraged for the sole purpose of furthering the interests of the Police - either to garner public support and confidence in investigations, or to protect, quite properly, the reputation of the service. Any other motivation, especially personal enrichment, must be jumped upon. But do not restrict the very necessary and very useful relationship which most journalists and most police officers employ to such good effect for the public good.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Ken Clarke: An apology

I should declare at the outset that I like Ken Clarke. A genuine political heavyweight of the old school, his gravitas and class bring me a welcome sense of comfort whenever he appears on Question Time, always outshining the manufactured young Party people propped up against him.

So I felt quite sad that, at his age and with his record, he was hounded yesterday into a very 21st century PC apology.

What did he have to apologise for? He stated, publicly, that there are different degrees of crime - a concept which the learned judges have regard to every day when sentencing in the criminal courts. What is the difference between him saying in a radio interview that there are varying degrees of severity in offences of rape, and a judge explaining that he has based his sentencing decision on the very same principles?

We are familiar with sliding scales of 'badness' in non-sexual assaults, where the law actually defines different offences dependent upon the outcome. There is a possibility of such a framework being introduced for murder offences, like the American degrees. Indeed, if one considers homicide then we already have this distinction with the offences of manslaughter and murder. So if we are happy with the principle for the most serious of all offences, and for numerous lesser crimes, why should rape be any different?

Could the answer be that rape is still viewed as an offence victimising women only (which it isn't)? Is the knee-jerk, leftist, PC view that, therefore, we must somehow treat it differently? How indignant would yesterday's critics be if we decided that all assaults, or abuse, or criminal damage should be treated the same, and removed the rider that these offences can be 'racially aggravated'? The law ought, as far as is possible within our over-sophisticated, defendant-slanted system, be consistent.

Please don't get me wrong, rape is a very serious offence, whatever the circumstances. It ruins lives, degrades, humiliates and scars minds as well as bodies. That is why we treat it so seriously, why the maximum sentence is life imprisonment. But remember that word maximum; the sentences available to judges effectively encompass the entire range. The final disposal will always depend on other factors, peculiar to the offence and the offender. We are, I think, happy to let the judges apply the sentencing rules in these cases; why are we so agitated by their boss talking about them on the radio?

Thursday, 5 May 2011

I was dreamin' when I wrote this, forgive me if it goes astray


Sean O'Neill of The Times has written an interesting piece today (which you can read HERE if you are a Times subscriber; if you are not then it is worth a Pound), having had exclusive access to a copy of the IPCC report into the Met failures in the Night Stalker case. Or, to be absolutely accurate, the IPCC's report into one failing which occurred in 1999 in the Night Stalker case.

I am not going to rehearse my views on the other, later, Night Stalker failures in this post. If you wish to read them, simply click on the 'March' posts over on the right. But I am still mystified that no journalist, no MP, no Councillor or no victim has asked the question as to why the IPCC were so narrow in their approach. It is a question I asked last year both of my bosses in the Met and the IPCC investigator. I was not given any sort of answer, let alone a compelling one. My experience of IPCC investigations (in a completely different but equally flawed investigation which I took over in 2005) is that, notwithstanding their original terms of reference, they will allow a large degree of mission creep if they feel there are skeletons to be found. And so they should. But in the Night Stalker case 1999 was the beginning and the end; if it didn't happen that year then it might as well not have happened at all.

The Met's line on this still seems to be that 1999 is all we need worry about. Perhaps they are all just avid Prince fans? They also replied to an enquiry to their Press Bureau about the 'learning' review that it was being conducted by NPIA. Which is interesting - I wasn't aware that the NPIA did reviews; their business plan, website and publicity material certainly make no mention of this function. Perhaps they are diversifying in light of the threat to their very existence? Or perhaps the Met meant there is a debrief planned which will be held or even facilitated by NPIA at their Bramshill site. I know that DSU Simon Morgan organised such a day some time ago, in his role of heading the learning exercise. I don't know when it will take place, or even if it already has, because I wasn't invited, even before I retired - though I would gladly contribute to such an event now, free of charge. Indeed, I'd probably even pay to be there. It feels somehow wrong, perhaps even (immodestly) a waste of what I can offer, that neither the Met nor the IPCC have asked for my input. I was asked, in May 2009, to look at the Night Stalker investigation and make suggestions to resolve it. I looked, reported, was given the authority to change and we were successful pretty quickly. I have therefore studied the case, its strategies and tactics, and its leadership very carefully. Understandably as a result I have many, many views on how it was led and progressed before May 2009, which I am sure would assist the 'learning', but nobody is asking for them.

If things are still as I think they are, the Met's answer citing the NPIA was clever, was not untrue, but neatly sidestepped the issue of who exactly in the Met is leading the review. Which, I still maintain, is an area which needs to be explored alongside the question of the extent of the IPCC investigation.

The difficulty I continue to encounter is that I want to answer questions which nobody seems prepared to ask.



Thursday, 31 March 2011

Will the Night Stalker lessons be taken seriously?

Outside Woolwich Crown Court last week Commander Simon Foy rightly apologised for the Met failing to catch Delroy Grant earlier, and promised the lessons from the case would be learnt. My knowledge of the case leads me to believe a new and independent inquiry into the failings over seventeen years must be launched.

As soon as Delroy Grant was arrested in November 2009 the bosses in SCD1, the Met’s Homicide and Serious Crime Command, which had been responsible for the investigation for the past eleven years, wanted to know if he could have been captured earlier. They acted quickly, and appointed a Detective Superintendent to oversee what they described as ‘a search for learning’.

This review began in November 2009 and very quickly uncovered what we are now calling the 1999 mistake – where false assumptions and slack work by a couple of junior officers led to the name Delroy Grant being shown as eliminated on the investigation’s database. The error was reported quickly, officers were spoken to and the matter promptly referred to the Independent Police Complaints Commission. The IPCC mounted an investigation, and as a result recommended ‘Words of Advice’ as the appropriate disciplinary punishment for the officers. This sorry episode featured highly in Commander Foy’s apology and the media coverage of the case after Grant’s conviction.

However, as we continued to prepare the case for trial, and were disclosing documents for the defence, another serious error came to light which began in March 2003 and was effectively repeated several times, even as late as February 2008. This related to a burglary on 8th March 2003 in Sydenham, when the 78 year-old lady victim bravely grappled with Grant as he burgled her home. After she told police what had happened, they called a doctor, and that evening he took scrapings from under her fingernails – a standard practice where there has been contact between victim and offender. For reasons I could not determine, the result of the analysis of these swabs was not acted upon by the team until more than 2½ years later, in October 2005. DNA matching the then-unknown profile of the Night Stalker had been found; the victim must have scratched him and unknowingly collected some of his skin cells.

Now knowing that this was definitely a linked offence, the then-SIO, Detective Superintendent Simon Morgan, with the family liaison officer went to tell the victim in person. While they were there she commented that she didn’t know many black men, but that the only ones she could think of who might be worth looking at were those drivers at the local mini-cab firm, Palace Cars, who used to take her to hospital and the doctors. She gave the officers details of the firm, and her comments were paraphrased and recorded in the Family Liaison log book. Some 3½ months later, in January 2006, this comment was read in the incident room, and an action created to research all black men driving cabs for that firm in 2003. However this action was repeatedly put off as not being a priority – in April, July and December 2006, until in June 2007 it was again put off but some reasoning was given,

“This action remains outside the current priority lines of enquiry as deemed by the SIO of (1) Motor-cyclists SE London, (2) Motor-cyclists Brighton, (3) Single Suggestions from media appeals and Crimewatch , and (4) Refusals.”

So rather than look at 20 or so men who were all working at the same place the team continued to try to get DNA swabs from a list of thousands. And the suggestion of a victim who had actually seen and touched the suspect was not acted upon, while the word of one - possibly unknown - person who had phoned the Crimewatch studio or the incident room would have been.

We now know Delroy Grant did indeed drive for the mini-cab firm in 2003, and had the action been taken then he could and should have been identified. Of course, by the time the DNA result was actually acknowledged by the team 2½ years had passed, which might have made a difference, but the regulation of mini-cabs ought to mean that former drivers remained traceable. In 2003 a DNA result could be obtained in a matter of days; however the practice on the team of putting all forensic result reports into a cardboard box without typing or indexing them on to the database may have had an effect on this and caused the delay – another lesson to be learnt? However there has been no apology, no referral to the IPCC. Nothing, almost as if it never happened.

Delroy Grant of course has now been convicted, and there is still time for this and other errors to be reported and acted upon. We can be happy of course that a Detective Superintendent in the Metropolitan Police will be a man of integrity, and will do his duty diligently. But I maintain - as I did back in Novemeber 2009 - that it is daft that the Detective Superintendent in question is Simon Morgan. He is responsible for reporting the learning from the whole SCD1 investigation, for which he alone was responsible for eight of its eleven years. How difficult must it be for a person objectively and critically to review his own decisions, and for such a public and important purpose? It is not fair to him personally, and neither in the interests of the Met nor the Police Service generally, for any ‘learning’ report to have even a suggestion of bias or lack of openness. Irrespective of the thoroughness of his work, it probably means any report will always be so tainted, and it really is crucial for the Met to get it done properly – independently - if they are to start to rebuild the public trust and confidence that the Night Stalker case has so badly damaged.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Sorry, again? For what, exactly?


[Pic: mirror.co.uk]


The two presumably deluded jurors who thought Delroy Grant had a point have made their stand; fortunately they served just to delay his conviction by 24 hours.

Tomorrow one hopes he will be weighed off with more porridge than even a City wholefood eaterie can sell in one breakfast, and we will never see him again. Which is, obviously, a good thing.

It meant though that, once more we have a Met Commander apologising live on all news channels, repeated in case you missed it at 6, 6.30 and 10. At least Simon Foy ventured away from the revolving sign and down to Woolwich to meet real people, real victims, and say sorry in person. But I imagine I am not alone in asking, in these circumstances - "What for? What went wrong? Who messed up?"

For possibly the last time, I am on this occasion in an excellent position to answer those questions for you, to expand on the Commander's words and explain what I think the Met, absolutely correctly in my view, might have apologised for.

The second Minstead offence, in 1998, was linked to one six years earlier by DNA left at both scenes by the suspect. The investigation was then given to what was probably then called the Area Crime OCU and is now known as the Homicide & Serious Crime Command, but which for simplicity we will call HSCC. HSCC deals almost exclusively in murder; the occasional serial rape or similar might be taken on but murders are their staple diet. And very good at investigating murder they are too - detection rates are invariably above 90%, often higher. Having led a murder team in London for 8 years, I think I know why this is. I had a skilled, experienced team of around 30 people to throw at each new offence, backed up by as much expert and scientific help as I wanted. Since most murders were unplanned, even spontaneous, the killer had given no thought to DNA, to fingerprints, to fibres and trace evidence, to CCTV or to telecoms data. So, in most cases it was simply a matter of turning up, doing our usual stuff and arresting the murderer a few days or weeks later. This was the principle which was applied to Minstead, for 11 years from 1998 to 2009. We had a DNA profile, and although we didn't know who it belonged to if we threw enough experience, enough detective savvy and enough science at it we would catch him.

Well we didn't did we. And in May 2009 when I first went across to Lewisham to 'have a look, see if there is a way of solving it' (as was my brief) it was pretty obvious that we never would. As I later learned from the decision logs, virtually everything for the past 11 years had been based on DNA. Even when on occasion some creativity or lateral-thinking was employed, it was getting scientists to try to discern ancestry or physical characteristics from the DNA profile. It was all about the DNA.

Essentially, the theory was that we knew some things about our man - gender, race, approximate age - and some other facts might be assumed from witness testimony - rides a motor bike (which Grant didn't), has a connection with Brighton (which Grant did), had his mother die in 2000 (which Grant didn't). Add to that detective nous - he must be able to be 'unseen' in the street, must do reconnaissance during the day, and a little behavioural psychologist profiling - will have previous convictions for burglary (Grant didn't), won't be married (he was, 3 times), will be a loner with few friends (he certainly wasn't) and it would be easy. From the overall pool of suspects, all the black men in south-east London born between 1945 and 1976, apply the above criteria and then you'll have a list of people you need to get DNA from, one of whom will be your suspect.

But the practice was very different. First, the unfiltered pool was populated by many whose experience of contact with the Met Police was less than satisfactory. That is just a fact of history - they were not treated very well by the Police in the 60s, 70s & early 80s. [Perhaps the Met shpould apologise for that?] Which meant that many refused as a matter of principle, or out of mistrust. Every time this happened a decision had to be made - arrest or not? On the basis the real suspect might well also have declined, this was a tricky choice which had to be justified in every case, but also one which sapped the energy and time of the team.

The task of getting a DNA sample from each of more than 20,000 men was made more difficult, more hopeless, by two other crucial factors. First, the prioritisation of who to swab first was, it seemed, ever-changing. Imagine a deck of cards, dealt out one by one until the King of Hearts was turned up. Only this deck had 21,000 cards, and the King of Hearts was missing, I don't know, perhaps lost down the back of the sofa. Every few months whoever was in charge at that time would see a new possibility - perhaps from a recent offence, perhaps from some other wise old Detective's suggestion - and call all the cards back, shuffle them again and begin once more to deal. In my first week 'looking at' Minstead all the supervisors on the team were again led through this by the Senior Investigating Officer. Except all the time Delroy Grant wasn't just hiding down the back of the sofa, he was burgling, raping, assaulting and robbing the elderly.

The second thing which appalled me in May 2009 was the size of the team. Or, more precisely, the lack of size of the team. MInstead had been culled in 2004 when officers had to be plundered from HSCC to bolster Safer Neighbourhood Teams. Having already cut 3 murder teams, when Sir Ian came calling again Minstead felt the knife and was halved in size. Effectively in May 2009 there were 8 people trying to get all these DNA swabs. In my first week they returned with one solitary swab. As we then had 5,200 men on the priority list the arithmetic was striking - at that rate it was 100 years of work.

Added to this, every time there was a new offence the same handful of officers had to respond, to do the initial enquiries, the house to house, the CCTV retrieval - everything that a murder team would do, with not even a third of the staff. And a murder team would usually take one investigation at a time and then not be given another for 6 weeks or so; Minstead sometimes had 3 a night, often 2 and once even 5. They simply could not cope, and thus a fiction had evolved, whereby offences which were plainly part of the series were discounted on pernickety and often spurious grounds, left to be investigated by the Borough. Which also meant they were not part of the official Minstead statistics, not part of the crime pattern analysis and most crucially not available to be cited as a reason for increasing resources. So the circle continued.

I reported these things upwards pretty quickly; why it took so long for them to be changed is another question and one I cannot answer. It was not, though, through lack of trying on my part. (The same goes for some individual instances of malpractice and inappropriate behaviour I found and reported - that is a related but different story.) What is undeniable though is that once we acted less like a murder squad and more like a burglary squad, once we forgot DNA and remembered observations, once we were looking for the Nightstalker on the streets at night and not in a database during the day time, we got him. The tragedy is that it took so long.

I haven't yet mentioned the missed opportunities being spoken of all over the media, so I must do briefly. The 1999 event is headlining because it was referred to the IPCC, and it is shocking because not only did a Minstead officer fail to do his job correctly but so did the Borough. Minstead or not there was a burglary with a registration number and a therefore a named suspect which was never properly investigated. Am I alone in thinking that a mistake which has the wholly unforeseen but wholly unacceptable consequences of letting Delroy Grant escape and offend for a further decade is deserving of a sanction more serious than 'Words of advice'? Unless those words advise the location of the local Jobcentre perhaps.

The 2001 opportunity is discounted by some, but for the wrong reasons. It may well be that the suspect suggested by a member of the public in 2001 was not the Nightstalker Delroy Grant, nor the 'wrong' one concerned in the 1999 error, but a third man of that name. It really doesn't matter. The point is that the research on that occasion was conducted by the ever-reliable PC Tony Briggs, whom I name because he did the right thing, as usual. He reported that he could not be certain that the Delroy Grant named in the phone call was the same man as the one in the 1999 incident. I should have thought that sufficient to alert the decision-makers to the need for a review of the 1999 action, and that is the missed opportunity.

In 2003, quite simply, a victim of Delroy Grant told officers that she thought her assailant might be a mini-cab driver from the local office she used. At that time Delroy Grant did indeed work at that firm. This was written up for action, to research the drivers at the firm, but a decision made not to proceed with the line of enquiry because officers were, and I paraphrase, too busy trying to get DNA swabs from black men with licences to ride motor cycles. This is not 20:20 hindsight, but a simple matter of investigative acumen. What was more likely to return a result, and quickly - looking to swab many hundreds if not thousands of men, one of which may or may not be the suspect, or looking at 20 or 30 men who work at a firm, where a victim who has actually seen the suspect at close quarters, thinks he might work? I believe it was a missed opportunity every bit as shameful as the 1999 episode.

Where do we go from here? What is important is that this is all never to happen again. For me, top of the list is that those who are the decision-makers in major investigations realise that an unknown DNA profile is conclusive evidence of presence, and so often of guilt, but that it is a very blunt, unsophisticated and ultimately unsuccessful means of identifying a suspect from a large population. Mass screenings seldom work, often deflect focus and always cost the earth.

I hope the Met learns other lessons, there are many, many things within Operation Minstead to consider, and which would make this already lengthy blog post intolerably hard work for all of us. However, I worry that the credibility of their internal search for enlightenment will be hard-won. Unless they have changed things since I left in November 2010, the officer in charge of reporting on the learning from Minstead is the officer who was its Senior Investigating officer from 2001 until I took over in October 2009. I don't think that is healthy either for him or the Met, but my observations fell on deaf ears. I really don't want to see them apologising again.

Monday, 7 March 2011

Police don't criminalise people, people do

Many years, indeed a whole career ago, I made an important decision. Despite my choice of A-levels, university and degree all being aimed at a career in the law, I chose instead to join the Police. Instrumental in this decision was my experience in working for a firm of solicitors, and the strange, illogical and almost perverse pleasure I encountered in some lawyers when they used their undoubted skill, training and experience to engineer acquittals when even an 18 year-old view of the world thought it obvious that the community would be far better off with someone locked away. It was a side of the line where I knew I could not in all conscience have been happy.

Every now and then a member of the Bar or a solicitor does me the favour of reminding me how that decision was so correct. The latest, according to the Guardian website, is Ruth Hamann of Hodge,Jones & Allen - a firm which evidently specialises in the law of protest. Essentially, the firm are claiming that the Metropolitan Police are criminalising students by issuing an 'excessive number' of cautions for aggravated trespass, arising from the recent tuition fee protests. It has always been my perhaps simplistic view that Police don't criminalise people, people do (with apologies to Goldie Lookin Chain). The law is there, you choose to break it, you're a criminal. The police just clear up the mess - or at least a percentage of the mess, I suppose.

But more than this, I am shocked and a little disappointed that Ms. Hamann is quoted thus:

"This may dissuade some young people from attending subsequent protests for fear that they might be charged with an offence and required to attend court".

Now, if we start on the premise that cautions can only be administered where the cautionee admits the offence, then we must presume mustn't we that each caution results from a committed offence. In which case the excessive number of cautions might be two or more per offence, but just the one would seem to me to be about right - and certainly not excessive.

Adult cautions for offences were introduced in the 1980s not only to take cases out of the over-burdened courts system, but also to give first-time offenders the chance to appreciate the advantages of mending their ways without going to court and getting a proper conviction. If, as Ms. Hamann observes, students who find themselves cautioned then refrain from committing further offences, or indeed find themselves dissuaded from attending events such as these marches where the likelihood of offending seems to be increased, then is this a Bad Thing? Or is it just the cautioning system working as it was designed to? And therefore a reason for a solictor - 'An Officer of the Court' - to celebrate a feature of our creaky, over-sophisticated, under-resourced criminal justice system that actually works as it was meant to, rather than carp about it.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

"Congratulations! You win the keys to an Austin Allegro."


A very unusual title, but let me explain. In the early 1980s there was a very large, very loud and very brusque DCI. And that was the phrase he uttered when a detective had messed up, though I don't think he actually said 'messed'. He was true to his word; within days if not hours the unfortunate officer would don a dusted-off uniform and be patrolling the (then not so mean) streets of north London in one of British Leyland's finest Panda cars.

Somehow over the last 30 years the Police Service lost that ability, that preparedness to judge and then to act upon it. Following the thinking that saw competitive sport replaced by trampolining in our schools and our educational qualifications being watered down so as to be almost meaningless, nobody could be labelled a loser. Blame became a dirty word, followed quickly by responsibility. While Police Officers would rightly be sacked for corruption, dishonesty or criminal acts, making mistakes was forgivable, almost acceptable.

However, lest we appeared arrogant, a way had to be invented to show our acceptance of failings but without picking on the individuals and their errors which had caused them. A lead was given by the Macpherson report, with its now almost infamous construction of the concept of 'institutional racism'. Here was the answer - the organisation can blame itself, take the criticism, promise to change and to do better, but leave the individuals alone, irrespective of what they had done. This was obviously the correct stance where some feature of the organisation's methods were to blame, but it was realised it could also be used even in those cases where the organisation wasn't really at fault - where the processes and protocols were sound, it was just that they weren't followed.

The Met, or at least certain sections of it, have invented a buzz-phrase for this - 'organisational contrition'. And in most cases now, that is as far as it will go. We have seen it already in relation to demonstrations and some investigations - the ACPO officer saying sorry in front of the revolving sign is now a common sight.

There is a high-profile case currently sub-judice where I am pretty certain these issues will become very public, but that of course must wait. However, as the resurrected phone-hacking investigations gets underway, the line is that there will be a new strategy, new tactics - but woe betide anyone who concludes from this that the original investigation was flawed. The new one is different, that's all, not better.

DAC Sue Akers who is heading it is an experienced, smart and practical officer, whom I admire and respect. We can have every confidence that the investigation will now be progressed thoroughly. But although there might appear to have been a reluctance to act in the past, a lack of progress despite information being available and so the possibility of errors having been made, we shouldn't expect finger-pointing. I doubt any detective will have won the keys to a Vauxhall Astra.

Blair was right shock!

No of course not Tony, but Lord, formerly Sir Ian, of that ilk. Of the seven Commissioners I served he was my least favourite, since I believe he caused damage to the structure, the culture, the aims and the reputation of the Force. But when he drew attention to how the media treated murder victims differently according to their background, I felt at the time he was probably correct - even if he expressed it a little too controversially.

In the last eight weeks we have witnessed what he meant. Two tragic murders - those of Joanna Yeates in Bristol and Nikitta Grender in Newport have it seems been separated by much more than the Bristol Channel, and illustrated his point perfectly.

If one were to compare the basic facts of these two murders there are certain similarities. Two young women, attractive, unmarried, murdered in their own homes. If anything, Nikitta being about to bear a child (which, of course, was also a victim of the murder) and the callousness of the attempt to burn her and her home after the murder ought, one might think, to make her crime slightly the more outrageous, the more newsworthy.

But while Joanna's murder was at the top of the news for many days, coverage of Nikitta has been very low key. So what are the differences in their cases which might have influenced this? Yes, the Christmas period during which the investigation into Joanna's disappearance and death was largely played out might have been quieter for other news; the very fact that such a tragedy occurred over the most important Christian religious period may have added a poignancy to the tragedy too. But isn't the real difference exactly what Lord Blair was alluding to? Put simply, using a perhaps old-fashioned concept, it was their class.

Joanna was 25, had studied, got qualifications - she was an Architect, so we were repeatedly told. (In fact she was a landscape architect, a very different occupation and one which wouldn't perhaps have had the same cachet and therefore impact?) She came from a middle-class family, rented in a nice part of town, had a middle-class boyfriend and eloquent friends and family willing to speak to the media.

Nikitta was 19, eight months pregnant (though unmarried, as we were reminded on a few occasions) and lived on a council estate. Her mother spoke via a statement read by police; her friend was interviewed on national news wearing a dressing gown. In daytime. The coverage was scant given the gravity of the crime; what there was did everything to promote an image of a typical (?) sink-estate unmarried teenage mother-to-be. A stark contrast to the features of Joanna's life and background which had been accentuated.

Murder detectives, to a man and woman, strive to solve their cases completely irrespective of the nature of the victim. It would be impossible to do otherwise - the reality of murders, especially in London, is that victims are all too often involved in drugs, gangs, prostitution or other lawful but 'alternative' lifestyles. Were value judgments made on the victim's worthiness then very little would get done. I find it a pity that the media are not as inclusive in the way they deal with these tragedies. I am genuinely interested - is it merely a commercial thing? Do murders of middle-class women sell more papers?

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Banned on the Run

Incredible. An over-used word but completely accurate of my reaction to Avon & Somerset Police banning ITN from their Joanna Yeates press conference this morning. I really could not believe it. The last thing any Senior Investigating Officer ought to want is to prevent a large section of the community from hearing the message - even when that message is, seemingly, quite short and merely releases something that might have been expected to have been in the public domain days ago.

Whoever imposed the ban was certainly acting robustly, swiftly and decisively; whether this is one of those situations where the wrong decision is better than no decision remains to be seen. I have my doubts.

When presenting on the Amelie Delagrange case to the national 'Media Management' course at Bramshill, my rule number one was simple. Police must always engage with the media, if for no other reason than that if there is a dearth of information released then the journalists will find it from other sources of probably dubious origin. Engagement and dialogue means influence - even a degree of control, at least of the quality of the information received by the media if not of what they do with it. Though that too, as we know, is perfectly possible if the relationship is sound.

I saw the ITN report which angered the force so much. It was obviously critical, but thankfully we exist in a state where criticism of the Police is allowed. Unless they banned that while I was worrying about hunting and smoking, and somehow I missed it. Was it unfair, as the complaint alleged? I think it might have been, but probably wasn't. Let me explain. Mark Williams Thomas made some reasonable points; at least he raised a few questions which were worth asking. But for none of them was a perfectly reasonable answer impossible. For example, the drink-bottles and cardboard coffee cups at the body deposition site. Yes, of course one would expect that area to have been thoroughly searched and everything retained. But Joanna was found 9 days ago; that area was cordoned off for some time while searches were conducted, and then re-opened. Since then journalists, film crews, photographers, well-wishers and presumably the odd ghoul or two have spent many hours there. Might they have dropped a piece of litter or two?

I know those who deal with crime on ITN well enough to know they are absolutely professional and keen to support rather than attack the Police. They want Joanna's killer caught as much as anyone, and want to play their part if they can. Once reasonable queries were raised by their pundit, I am sure they will have raised them in turn with Avon & Somerset, to get their views or their explanation. I would be completely amazed if this were not the case.

Which puts the ball back firmly in the A&S court. If these questions were asked of them, and they gave up the opportunity to engage and give their side, then they can't complain when the piece runs as it did. Alternatively, if ITN went ahead either failing to put the questions, or having put them then ignoring the responses, then of course the Police should be cross. Of course they should have words with ITN, robustly, swiftly and decisively. And make sure that ITN give the opportunity to put things right, clear up the misunderstanding and then move on.

But banning a mainstream national broadcaster from a conference? Whether it is a stupid, childish, 'take-my-ball-home' reaction, or high-handed arrogance is in many ways irrelevant - though it may be either or both. Quite simply, the success or otherwise of difficult, Category A+, stranger murder investigations such as this may hinge on maintenance of media interest with the mass communication opportunities that brings. Why effectively switch off half the nation's TV sets to your message? Why risk your media strategy becoming the story rather than a terrible murder? Avon and Somerset must accept that while their primary duty is to solve the murder and protect the public, these high-profile cases bring another responsibility - to enable proper public interest and discussion. It is completely unrealistic to expect to conduct a Category A+ murder investigation from within a bubble.

I fear, indeed am certain though, that this will not be the last time I am agitated by a refusal of Police to engage in a sensible way with the media over a high profile case. It will arise again much closer to home, before the Summer comes, you mark my words..............

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

If you can't take a joke.......

Freed from the inhibition of being a Police Officer (which is inhibiting of expression, not of thought) I intend to make this blog a vehicle for my oft-disconnected jottings and musings. Until something new comes along to stimulate my thoughts, here's a piece I wrote around two years ago, just to give an idea of what to expect in the future:

I am a Police Officer, and immensely proud of it. I have achieved a reasonably senior rank, and some success in my chosen specialism, which is the investigation of major crime. On successive evenings recently I have sat at home as a helpless onlooker whilst the organisation - the calling - I have followed so passionately for the last 28 years was assassinated on prime-time TV. And the Police, not the broadcaster, were to blame.

First, BBC1’s Crimewatch featured a Police Constable and a Community Support Officer in Newcastle who, waiting outside a Tesco store for an unconnected purpose, were eye-witnesses to a robbery. The Constable was savvy enough to appreciate what she was seeing, and went with her colleague to investigate. The CCTV showed them looking through the store’s main doors, just as the two robbers (armed with a crowbar and a pick-axe handle, but no obvious guns or knife) were relieving the security guards of many thousands of pounds destined for the shop’s cash machine.

They watched too, as a slightly chubby, bespectacled and middle-aged lady employee made a heroic job of grappling with a robber. When her efforts failed and the villains made for the door, what did the cops do? Bar the door armed with baton and CS gas? Rugby tackle the robbers and save the money? Even rush into the store to make sure there were no casualties? No, they ran away. The Constable explained to the cameras (from what might perhaps be her preferred ‘beat’, sitting in the station at a computer) that there were two robbers and she decided they were likely to overpower her so she wouldn’t tackle them.

On Wednesday, ITV showed ‘Cops on Camera’. In it we were treated to the spectacle of a drunken yob who had mouthed off at some Constables. I think he had told an officer “I’m gonna split you”. We were then witness to several minutes of negotiation between three officers and said yobbo. But this was Taunton on a Friday evening, not the Iranian Embassy siege. It can’t just have been old, proud Coppers like me who were cringing at the stand off, with two fit young men frightened to approach an unfit lout who could barely support himself but was making enough noise for ten men.

But worse, they were keeping him at bay with a Taser, the high-voltage electric shock gun which, until relatively recently, was available only to firearms officers in properly authorised operations. What made it the more saddening were the self-satisfied comments they made after he was (finally) arrested. The Taser had made it easy for them, it was ‘fit for purpose’ said one – easily using management-speak like an officer who probably has a bright future. I confess I never realised its purpose was to enable drunks to be bullied into submission, in the name of the Community.

In both cases the worst excesses of the Health & Safety-driven, risk-averse attitudes which pervade our current police force (sorry, Police Service) were plain. The officer in Newcastle may well have been correct in her judgment. She could well have been pushed aside, taken a slap or a punch or, God forbid, even worse. I’m sorry but I expect her – indeed I firmly believe the Community expects her – to take that risk. That is why we have Police, that is why we train and equip them and, yes, why we pay them. Considerably more than Tesco pay their assistants. We expect that they will, occasionally, put themselves at risk for the common good. Is it not completely unacceptable for a Police Officer, on duty and in uniform, to watch a robbery and then run away without even trying to effect an arrest? Unfortunately, anyone who pointed this out to her would, I am sure, be branded a heretic. She had carried out her ‘dynamic risk assessment’ and decided to run away; her flight of course being the only dynamism in her conduct that morning.

What possessed Northumbria Police then to advertise this sorry tale in front of millions on Crimewatch I cannot begin to fathom. Now not only do we do stupid things but we actively seek to put them on the telly. I am pretty confident many of the viewers must have felt similar anger to me; only the Police Officers would have shared the shame.

Then ‘Cops With Cameras’ turned shame to acute embarrassment. It was a drunk, calling Old Bill names just as thousands of drunks have done before him for the last 180 years. The two young officers, having made the decision to act, could have moved in swiftly and effected an arrest in seconds. Instead they chose to threaten the use of a weapon which, while not lethal on its own, is thoroughly unpleasant. It is an excellent tool in the correct circumstances; I have been present at its deployment and support its availability unreservedly. Seeing the Taser-toting PC almost toying with the drunk, playing the laser spot which indicates where it will strike up and down his body, sickened me. It reached a point where the drunk wanted to comply but was also desperate to keep his jacket clean and refused to lie down. I was by now willing him to give in - for the Taser not to be used - with a fervour my TV only usually receives during my team’s away games.

Yet, I don’t actually blame any of these Constables. Just as liberal thought percolated from local authorities through our schools, the NHS and other public services in the 1980s, it is now entrenched in policing and has not only changed the essential character of the leadership of the organisation, but crucially has also distorted the culture and values of its officers.

During my training, in the early 1980s, a common phrase from the Instructors (to translate for modern cops, that was what Facilitators were called then) was “If you can’t take a joke…….”. It should have been completed by “….. you shouldn’t join the Job”, but the regularity with which it was repeated made the second half unnecessary. In that simple, unofficial and light-hearted idiom was encapsulated a whole raft of expectations and norms. It was expected that sometimes it would be unpleasant, thankless and dangerous. We all knew that, and quite frankly we knew we hadn’t chosen interior design or librarianship as a career.

We joined a disciplined, hierarchical force, where obedience without question was the norm, where pride in the uniform, the ethos of service and a readiness to take action when ‘normal’ people would gape or hide, were desirable and highly-prized characteristics.

I now fear this ethic has disappeared. The long tradition of heroics by our police on and off duty may be nearing its end; indeed what we have seen is not just that. It is a lack of fibre, an unwillingness amongst officers to dirty their hands. Despite their extensive ‘Personal Protective Equipment’ (vest, baton, handcuffs and CS gas) we have a new generation of Bobbies unwilling to get involved in physical confrontation unless they have overwhelming force of numbers, or a hi-tech cattle prod to threaten with. Some, less kind than me, might I am sure describe it in a different way – one which makes their awful modern yellow jackets very appropriate.

Another stark reminder of the new mindset in recent weeks came to me not on television but while I was working. Sitting with a few officers from my specialist investigation team, we were catching up on the case we had been called out to in a local police station. We had all been at work for around 16 hours; it was gone midnight and I knew I wouldn’t even be home for lunch. I eavesdropped in disbelief as a ‘veteran’ (read: 3 years service) Police Constable dictated to her newly-recruited colleague an email to their Sergeant. The content was essentially telling him that, as she had been working overtime until 1am, she would not be in for her 6am start but instead would be appearing at noon.

Intrigued, I asked and found that the practice now is that officers can insist on eleven hours between their shifts. “EU rules”, she added, with the confidence of someone who clearly knew her rights; a manner which I instantly recognised from my time on the beat. I tried in my mind to work out how the Sergeant, coming on duty at 6am to find he was an officer short, would cope. What if the whole team, or half of it even, were late off? Finding it insoluble, I was forced to conclude that I was applying the simple logic of the past to what has become a very different situation.

Is there any way back? Depressingly I don’t believe so. The last three Met Commissioners before Sir Paul Stephenson have all appeared as defendants in Health & Safety Act prosecutions. Whilst the Lords Stevens and Condon were acquitted, their case was in relation to how the organisation looked after its officers, and the decision to prosecute at all prompted a re-think of how we dealt with risk. There are now generic risk assessments and corporate risk assessments in place for every imaginable occurrence in day-to-day policing. Officers who are set to work with but a passing acquaintance with the Theft Act are instructed ad nauseam in conducting dynamic risk assessments for the unimaginable.

All an officer has to do is suggest that his/her dynamic assessment suggested danger, and no supervisor has the courage to challenge it, knowing full well anyway that eventually someone further up the chain would capitulate even if that courage were found. In most cases they do their own risk (to career) assessment, and the H&S Emperor continues his streak down the High Street. There are a few left who are willing to point out the nakedness, but sadly we greatly outnumber those who are listening.

Unless somebody grasps this, soon, and changes the culture, we must become accustomed to Police who are no more likely to act extraordinarily than is the lady on the checkout at the supermarket. And that is not a joke I can take.