With the best intentions, the new model police chief has failed spectacularly. By David Rose
IF there is something faintly tragic about the plight of Sir Paul Condon, the much-lambasted Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, then race is his nemesis. Last week, he found himself vilified when he tried to apologise to Stephen Lawrence's parents for failing to bring their son's racist killers to justice, and Doreen, the murdered boy's mother, called on him to resign. But although he denied that his officers' catastrophic errors were the product of "institutional racism" within the force, the admissions he did make must have cost him dear. They amounted to a confession that he had personally failed in the mission he set himself at the start of his tenure, nearly six years ago.

Less than a month after reporting for duty as the youngest commissioner this century, it was on the issue of race that Condon set out his stall. He used his first public speech to promise that the police would not tolerate racism in either society or the service itself, saying: "We must be totally intolerant of racially motivated attacks, intolerant of those who engage in racial abuse and intolerant of those who use hatred and violence as the tools of their political expression. We must be equally intolerant of our own colleagues who fail to reach the required standards. We demand exemplary conduct from those we employ."

If that was Sir Paul's manifesto, then his own words to the Stephen Lawrence inquiry last week disclose that he has been unable to see it carried out. "I acknowledge that we have not done enough to combat racist crime and harassment," he said. "The skills and resources that we have applied successfully to other areas have not, as a matter of priority, been applied to racially motivated crime." There were still police racists, Condon said, while officers who resorted to racial stereotyping and used their powers of stop-and-search disproportionately against black people were "widespread".

For a man once seen as the very epitome of a new model police chief, these words must have tasted bitter indeed. And it is not as if the Lawrence case is a single, isolated example: Condon's Met has been accused of mishandling racially sensitive incidents uncomfortably often. There was the death during an immigration raid in 1993 of Joy Gardner, who asphyxiated while confined in a body belt; the riot in Brixton two years later after Wayne Douglas died in a police station cell; the recent acceptance that inquiries into the murder of another black man, Michael Menson, were so badly botched that his death was treated as suicide.

Even Condon's harshest critics acknowledge that he has no taint of personal racial prejudice, and that his efforts to improve force performance are sincere. His failure, in other words, is not of attitude but of leadership: however enlightened his exhortations to the troops, they have not got the message, and thus the old, intolerant "canteen culture" persists.

This charge is more difficult to refute. Again he must be judged by the standards he set himself in 1993. "I have no fears of a rearguard action to prevent change," he said the week before moving into Scotland Yard. "For me, the Met commissioner's job is akin to that of chairman or chief executive of a big business. Any chief executive of a business that size [27,000 police officers and 16,000 civil staff] has to go in and stamp his own authority."

Small wonder, perhaps, that the Lawrence judicial inquiry has triggered in Paul Condon something of a personal, as well as an institutional, crisis. He was opposed to its establishment in the first place, and even last week was still suggesting it had not been wholly fair. At earlier stages in the inquiry, close associates say, he became defensive and withdrawn. Each day, as the damning evidence emerged, he was rushed detailed reports. The light in his 11th-floor office was often seen burning long into the night.

It is a sad way, if not to end, then to enter the ultimate act of a distinguished police career. Paul Condon, still only 51, joined the Metropolitan Police in March 1967 - on the same day as Norwell Roberts, its first black PC. His first beat was in London's East End, then as now a battleground for professional criminal gangs. He was picked out early as leadership material, and packed off to Oxford to get a degree in law.

On his return, his rise was smooth. He did a spell as an operational commander back in the East End, and several jobs in the policy backroom. By now married with three children, he got his big break in 1988, when he was appointed Deputy Assistant Commissioner, in charge of West London. He used it to transform the Notting Hill carnival, which had often been marred by crime and confrontation with the police. With Condon's encouragement, the old carnival management was ousted, and after little more than a year, he was on his way to Kent as chief constable. There he brought a new honesty to once- corrupt crime figures, while introducing a range of performance targets, such as the time officers took to respond to emergencies.

His courage is not in doubt. Appointed commissioner by Kenneth Clarke, he offended his Whitehall patron within months, by attacking the proposals in the Sheehy report - much loved by Clarke - that would have worsened police pay and conditions. Throughout the 1980s, senior Yard officers had complacently assured the media that serious financial corruption was a thing of the past. In discovering that this was untrue, Condon formed a new squad in an attempt to root it out, and spoke of the "criminals" in the force's midst.

The complexity of factors which cause crime must prevent Paul Condon from claiming credit for the 20 per cent fall in London's crime rate. But allowing for statistical vagaries, the fact that the annual number of crimes cleared up has increased from 150,000 to 193,000 has to be a sign of success.

Post-Lawrence, it is not enough, however. The Met has been likened to an oil tanker and, culturally, Sir Paul has not turned it round. The Black Police Association's evidence to the inquiry described an environment in which black officers still felt isolated, the butt of discrimination and racist jokes. On the streets, where it matters even more, bad practice is still too prevalent.

So what has gone wrong? However sincerely Condon wished to change things at the outset, the problem has been an absence of means. His predecessor, Sir Peter Imbert, also wanted to change police culture. The difference was that Imbert set up a department, known as "Plus", solely to achieve this end, and by the time he retired in 1993, there were signs it was beginning to work - indeed, many of its ideas have since been adopted by provincial forces. At the heart of Plus's ethic lay a simple principle: that both internally, and in their dealings with the public, the police had to be more democratic, more ready to listen to criticism, less hierarchical and authoritarian.

Senior officers, in other words, were no longer to be judges in their cause: their subordinates and customers were equally important, and had the right to question their judgment. Yet one of Condon's early acts was to downgrade Plus, and soon it was abolished. The distance between ranks was reasserted, and the negative elements of canteen culture re- established their grip.

In other ways, the Met became a less open institution. For several years, access to the media became so controlled that journalists organised delegations to Scotland Yard. (There are now signs this has begun to change.) When Condon started, he found on his desk a plan to reshape the Met so that its divisions became coterminous with local councils, in order to make communication with local institutions much easier. He scrapped it.

His relationship with the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, is vexed: in early meetings after the election, he infuriated Straw's staff by what they saw as a reluctance to divulge information, and threats, when faced with Treasury discipline, that his only option was to cut the numbers of bobbies on the beat. They are also critical of his approach to the Lawrence case: "There has been a lack of graciousness," says a senior source, "a minimalist approach in which there has been too little in the way of apologies, too late."

If race is Condon's nemesis, it is part of a wider picture. If the Met has become estranged from the black community, it has also become more distant from the community as a whole. "The fundamental problem is he always sees the need to defend his troops: he doesn't get the balance right between boosting morale and the need to look outward," says another Home Office source. "He is slow to see how the world sees him and his organisation."

Hence the tragedy. Filled with good intentions, Condon chose the road to police-community hell.