Sir Robert Mark: Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police who was ruthless in rooting out corruption

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The Independent Online

Robert Mark was arguably the most important individual to emerge from 20th-century British policing. He will be remembered as a shrewd political animal with strong militaristic tendencies. He was a powerfulcommunicator who regarded all but a few politicians with contempt, and a flag-waver for an independent police force and for the integrity of the uniformed officer.

Robert Mark was born in 1917, the youngest of five children. His parents were of middle-class Yorkshire stock who had moved to the suburbs of Manchester in their late thirties. RobertMark entered William Hulme Grammar School, where he excelled as a sportsman, became a member of the Cadet Force and was later appointed head prefect. He left school in 1935, and after two dispiriting years as a clerk in a carpet factory, joined the Manchester City Police in 1937.

While still a probationer he entered the plain clothes branch dealing mainly with vice, and at this early stage in his career routinely carried a concealed truncheon, with which on one occasion he broke the head of a truculent drunk. As war approached, Mark was appointed to the Special Branch in 1938, and in 1942 he joined the Royal Armoured Corps, serving in France, Belgium, Germany and Czechoslovakia, and he stayed in Germany with the Control Commission until 1947, when he was demobbed with the rank of Major.

He returned to Special Branch work in Manchester and rapidly achieved the rank of Sergeant. In 1950 he was promoted to Inspector, and in 1952 returned to uniform as Chief Inspector. His rapid progress continued, and in 1957, at the age of 39, Mark was appointed Chief Constable of Leicester. His "street policing" had amounted to only 10 years before he arrived behind a desk as Chief Inspector; of those 10 years all but a few months were spent dealing with the rarefied problems of the Special Branch.

During his largely uneventful period in the Midlands, where he prioritised the city's traffic problems, Mark began to establish the kind of highpublic profile that was to prove a template for successive generations of senior police officers. Up until this period the Metropolitan Police produced its own senior officers at the Hendon Police College, and so it was with some apprehension that Mark in 1967 accepted an invitation from the Home Secretary Roy Jenkins to take up the post of Assistant Commissioner in the capital. His apprehension was well founded, for at the end of his first week in the post the Commissioner Sir Joseph Simpson encouraged Mark to apply for the post of Chief Constable of Lancashire.

Mark had responsibility for the Met's "D" Department, dealing with suchdiverse issues as recruitment, training, buildings and dogs. After experiencing his own command this proved to be a frustrating time for Mark, and a year later he briefly transferredto "B" Department, with a familiarresponsibility, for traffic control. However, by March Sir Joseph Simpson was dead and the battle for control of the Met began.

Peter Brodie, the former Assistant Commissioner in charge of the Met's 3,000 detectives, was the overwhelming favourite for the vacant job. However, the new Home Secretary, James Callaghan, saw Simpson's death as an opportunity to impose the will of the Home Office upon the self-perpetuating hierarchy of the Met, and offered the job to Mark. It is a measure of Mark's shrewdness that he turned the post down, recognising the possibility of mutiny at the appointment of an outsider. Mark suggested as an interim measure the promotion of the Deputy Commissioner, John Waldron, while he stepped up to Deputy.

As Deputy Mark had the leverage to take on the CID. Disciplinary procedures were changed, detectives were returned to uniform and an increasing number of detectives were suspended. Mark made a number of high-profile television appearances in the wake of student unrest and anti-Vietnam War protests that served to valorise the uniformed officer, and Mark began to gather a group of loyal ambitious non-Hendon uniformed officers around him. The Hendon old guard were divided by their loyalties to their alma mater and to the detective or uniform branch, and as the uniform branch gained precedence Brodie found himself increasingly isolated.

In November 1969 The Times published allegations of corruption against three detectives and an internal investigation was run in tandem with an investigation by a member of Her Majesty's Inspectorate, Frank Williamson. Williamson, who later claimed to have received little co-operation from Mark, did much to expose corruption within the Met, despite being hampered at every stage, in some cases by detectives who were later to receive prison sentences.

As the CID was still carrying out its own investigations Mark stepped up his campaign of suspensions. In 1971, with Brodie out of the country onpolice business, Mark persuadedWaldron to let him set up A10, a group of specially selected officers taken from both uniform and detective branches to work directly under Mark in theinvestigation of all allegations against Met officers. However, before A10 was operational the Home Secretary Reginald Maudling reacted to continued newspaper exposés of corruption by appointing Mark as Commissioner designate four months before Waldron's retirement.

In the February of that year, the Head of the Flying Squad was suspended after it was alleged that he had vacationed abroad with a pornographer, and nine days later Brodie was taken to hospital suffering from stress. Mark set about purging the CID, presenting whenever possible the uniform branch as the purveyors of "real policing".Divisional detectives were put under the control of the uniformed commanders; Detective Commanders wereput under the control of uniformed Deputy Assistant Commissioners;A10 was fully established under the command of a uniformed officer; responsibility for dealing with pornography was switched to the uniformed branch; and promoted detectives were moved back into uniform for a minimum of two years. Within two weeks Mark had informed CID that they were the "'most routinely corrupt organisation in London"'.

Brodie's successor was an Assistant Commissioner of Traffic with no previous experience of the CID. By 1973 two officers a week were leaving as a result of Mark's purge, and bank robberies had fallen by more than a half. During Mark's reign, a yearly average of 50 officers were permanently suspended, and 487 officers were dismissed or required to resign.

The CID was the antithesis of the military model of policing, which despite his lack of time served "on the beat" was Mark's preferred style. He had a reverence for military service that was apparent not only in his preference for the uniform branch but also in his service as a police representative on many joint/police consultative committees. In 1974 Mark instigated joint police/army operations that involved the occupation of London Airport five times. As Commissioner, he also twice utilised the SAS, once during the Balcombe Street siege, and once in dealing with a hijacker at Stansted Airport. Troops of an unspecified regiment were also present at the 1975 Spaghetti House siege.

Under Mark the uniformed branch policed the capital through the eraof student unrest, of industrial militancy and through the Conservative government's five declarations of a State of Emergency during 1970-72. During his reign there was also a discernible shift towards paramilitary policing, notably in the expanded role of the Special Patrol Group, who adopted many of the public order tactics that were prevalent in Northern Ireland, including snatch squads. The SPG was twice accused of being responsible for deaths at political demonstrations. In 1973 SPG officers shot dead two men who were later found to be wielding imitation guns, which confirmed that SPG officers were routinely carrying firearms.

Mark was rigidly opposed tosocietal change, passing off the death of a student at a demonstration at Red Lion Square as the result of left-wing extremism and expressing his belief that Robert Mark believed that "the worst of all crimes is the furtherance of political or industrial aims by violence". Regardless of his avowed political neutrality, Mark made no secret of his disdain for the Labour Party, particularly in government, and was ferocious in his attacks upon those of the Labour left who sought to improve police accountability.

Mark reserved some of his wrath for the legal profession. His 1973 Dimbleby Lecture poured scorn upon corrupt members of the legal profession, in particular defence counsel, and reiterated his low regard for the Met CID. His comments provoked an outraged response from legal luminaries such as Lord Salmon, yet by confirming his belief that the ethos of a politically independent police force should be protected at all costs he boosted his status among the British police community. Mark's lecture opposed changes to the law on picketing and criticised the protections offered to defendants both at the interrogation stage and during the trial.

At a stroke Mark had changed the nature of the debate about criminal justice in Britain: never before had a senior officer expressed such critical opinions. He was convinced that the nation deserved "more information and better informed debate about police affairs than that likely to be forthcoming from the Palace of Westminster, the Law Society or Bar 'Council". The role of the Police Chief as reformer was a new one and Mark adopted it with relish, undertaking an extensive lecturing campaign in Britain and the US. He lectured on a range of subjects, particularly on the changes that he wished to see made to the jury system, so that majority and not unanimous verdicts could establish guilt.

He attacked the National Council for Civil Liberties, demonstrating students, strikers, the IRA and any other group he regarded as a threat to the socio-political order. Mark was also in favour of an independent element in the investigation of complaints against the police, but saw in the Police Act of 1976 the possibility of Chief Officers having to surrender responsibility to political appointees.

Mark retired in 1977, partly as a result of his dismay that the Police Act had been passed, and partly due to his desire, at the age of 60, to maximise his pension entitlement. He went on to work as a director with a number of leading companies, and to advertise a famous make of tyres.

Mark's early 1970's anti-corruption campaign continued into the reign of his successors, evolving into the disastrous Operation Countryman, bringing into question the long-term effectiveness of his efforts to clean up the CID. However his 10 years in the Met were a whirlwind of internecine warfare, anti-corruption activities, terrorism and major public disorder. Mark's essentially conservative ideology quickly identified the threat both to the Met and to the British political system as a threat from within, and he policed the Met and London accordingly. He did not flinch from offering his informed opinion on a wide number of issues and succeeded in placing the Police firmly in the limelight of political debate, paving the way for such high-profile officers as John Alderson and James Anderton.

Robert Mark, policeman: born Manchester 13 March 1917; Deputy Commissioner, Metropolitan Police 1968–72, Commissioner 1972–77; Kt 1973, GBE 1977; married 1941 Kathleen Leahy (died 1997; one son, one daughter); died 30 September 2010.