Brian Paddick, Britain's best-known, openly gay police officer, was at a rally for cadets just before Christmas when he was approached by the mother of one of the youngsters. She asked him: "Where's your wife?"
"I thought 'where shall we go with this one?' " recalled the Scotland Yard police chief. "So I said: 'I don't have a wife because I'm gay.'"
When the woman insisted he wasn't, he replied: "I have a picture of my partner in my wallet. But she thought it was a picture of me rather than my partner."
The woman, who was at the event organised by Metropolitan Police's volunteer cadet corps, came back 15 minutes later. "She apologised and said I do believe you now, someone else has told me."
The story highlights two issues surrounding Deputy Assistant Commissioner Paddick, firstly there is still a fascination about the sexuality of a senior cop, and secondly, if he is to fulfil his ambition and become Britain's first openly gay chief constable he will have to overcome a considerable amount of prejudice.
For the 45-year-old described as "Britain's most controversial police chief", the past 18 months have been a relatively quiet period. This is largely due to him being shunted into a low-profile backroom role while the media furore dies down.
But he is now back, with a promotion last month to the rank of Assistant Deputy Commissioner putting him on equal footing with a deputy chief constable in a force outside London and pushing his salary up to £96,000.
As well as being responsible for ensuring the Met continues to push down the number of street muggings and burglaries, a more liberal approach to cannabis, which he pioneered in south London, has just been adopted nationally.
Back in 2002, life did not look so rosy. He came to the attention of the press in July 2001, when he set up a pilot scheme in Brixton under which anyone caught with a small amount of cannabis was released without charge.
The Oxford University graduate quickly became the bogeyman of the right-wing press and was treated with suspicion by some of his colleagues.
The then commander of the borough of Lambeth also got into trouble after it was discovered that he had posted controversial comments on the radical internet chatroom Urban75.com, under the tag name of "Brian: The Commander".
It was with some inevitability that The Mail on Sunday, published the revelations of one of Mr Paddick's old boyfriends after paying him £100,000 for the story.
James Renolleau, 36, claimed his partner of five years had smoked cannabis on more than 100 occasions at the couple's Westminster flat.
To his fury, Mr Paddick was moved from Lambeth to a desk job in March 2002 while a criminal investigation was held.
He was cleared of criminal wrongdoing in October 2002, and later a disciplinary inquiry by the Metropolitan Police Authority also ruled there was no evidence to substantiate the cannabis allegations.
He successfully sued The Mail on Sunday in December last year and won substantial damages and an apology. He claimed libel and breach of confidence after the newspaper published details about his private life.
The furore over the cannabis allegations and his removal from Lambeth still rankles with the senior officer. "I think I could have been treated a lot better," he said. "What I thought could have been done better, maybe, is I could have been given more support while the process had to be gone through - rather than most people heading for the hills."
Asked if he shared the opinion by some that he had been "hung out to dry", he replied: "That's the feeling I got too."
He still believes he was right to use the website and attempt to talk to a section of society which normally shuns the police. "It is about time we lost this conservative label and started talking like ordinary people. The people I was talking to on that website understood exactly what I meant when I said 'help the addicts and screw the dealers'."
He continued: "The Met is not as conservative as people make it out to be."
"It's elements of the media that are ultra conservative and take grave exception to police officers using that sort of language - suggesting radically different approaches - and find the idea of an openly gay man in any position of authority abhorrent, not the police service."
He believes that the Met and the Police Service have made great strides in accepting and encouraging the recruitment and promotion of gay officers, but that many officers are still reluctant to come out.
"I did an inspection and I talked to this officer who started talking about his partner, which is always a sign.
"The officer was obviously gay. I don't think there are many people on the planet who don't known I'm gay. Even though I'm the most out of any senior officer there was this officer trying to avoid revealing the fact what gender his partner is."
He said he had a similar experience talking to another officer whom he recognised from a social event held by the Met's gay police association.
"They were still embarrassed with the most gay friendly police officer - that has to say something about where we are in terms of diversity and whether people can remain comfortable in the Met around their difference, whether it's a faith difference, a race difference, or an orientation difference."
"Hopefully the legal action I brought against Associated Newspapers [publisher of The Mail on Sunday] will make newspapers more wary of inappropriate intrusion into people's private lives, particularly high-profile gay people."
The fear of media exposure and intrusion has prevented other gay people in senior police posts from revealing that they are gay, he said, illustrating the point by revealing: "I know that, before I got promoted, I wasn't the most senior gay officer in British policing."
Senior police officers should embrace and take advantage of their cultural or sexual differences, he believes. "Its no good having black judges or gay chief constables if they forget where they come from."
"The remarkable thing about what I have achieved is that I have not hidden the fact I'm a gay man and stopped associating with like-minded people. I feel I am still in touch with my community and yet I'm still in a senior position."
He disagrees that most police authorities are conservative and would balk at hiring a controversial gay chief constable. "It is more about your approach to policing than your personality."
On the issue of the recent reclassification of cannabis from a class B to a class C drug, he fears that the changes are going to result in the worst of both worlds.
The concern is that some members of the public mistakenly believe that cannabis has been legalised, while many officers are going to ignore the proposed changes and continue to arrest, rather than warn, the majority of people caught in possession of marijuana.
"If police officers carry on as they always have done and ignore the reclassification because they still have got the power of arrest then you are not saving anything to put into more serious crime, so no gain, but a lot of pain because there is this danger of people wrongly assuming that because it has been reclassified it's safe."
One of his key roles in his new job is to ensure the Met is successful in further reducing crime rates. Divisional commanders had pledged to cut street crime in the year from April by 11 per cent, he said.
Part of the police's response will be to set up rapid response teams which can immediately attend a street robbery.
The biggest change about to take place in the Met is the return to community policing, which will eventually result in six-strong teams of officers being permanently based in every ward in London.
Brian Paddick was born in 1958 in South London. He joined the Metropolitan Police in 1976.
Mr Paddick obtained a degree from Oxford in Politics, Philosophy and Economics. He also has a diploma in Applied Criminology and Police Studies from Cambridge.
He served as an operational police officer in both uniform and CID.
Mr Paddick became a sergeant in Brixton at 22, and later a CID manager at Notting Hill, and chief superintendent in the borough of Merton at 40.
He was married to Mary Stone in 1983 in Cheam, Surrey; divorced in 1988.
In 2001 and 2002 he was the borough commander of Lambeth.
In 2002, he was sidelined to an office job while inquiries were held into allegations of cannabis use. He was cleared.
In January 2004 he was promoted to Deputy Assistant Commissioner.Reuse content