John Grieve: 'Who trains little kids to spit words of hate?'

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The Independent Online

"Have a look," says John Grieve, pointing at the untidy heap of documents and files piled on his desk and scattered around his office. "Who would be able to come in here and clear out my office?"

The Deputy Assistant Commissioner is referring to the fact that, at 55, he is due for retirement. Three years ago he started planning for a quiet life. Then he got a call asking him to lead a unit dedicated to solving race-hate crimes.

Smarting from the accusations levelled at it by the Stephen Lawrence inquiry, the Metropolitan Police set up the unit to prove to a cynical public that the police are taking race crimes seriously. As head of the Race and Violent Crimes Task Force, Grieve has now vowed not to retire until Stephen Lawrence's killers are brought to justice.

Certainly he will need all the energy and resilience he can muster. With race riots in the north and Midlands, black-on-black gun crime in London and now a promised visit from the controversial black separatist Louis Farrakhan, Grieve's work is higher on the social and political agenda than in the last 20 years.

Casually dressed in a short-sleeved shirt and trousers, Grieve is disarmingly accessible. He could be mistaken for an eccentric university professor rather than one of the Met's highest-ranking officers.

Grieve's CV is impressive. With 14 police commendations and awards for outstanding courage, he led the Met's elite antiterrorist unit and was in charge of key investigations, such as the 1996 Docklands bombing.

His critics, however, mutter that beneath the genial exterior is a master at the game of office politics.

At the end of last year, he was called upon to apologise to a Sikh sergeant, Gurpal Virdi, who was wrongly accused of sending racist hate mail. Grieve refused, although he said he personally sympathised with the officer.

A realist, he accepts London will never be completely free of racial tension. In his opinion, the key is keeping those tensions under control through the Task Force.

"My job came from Stephen's racist murder, and our tribute to Mr and Mrs Lawrence has to be that we try to make things better, and that's what I've been doing.

"People say: 'It's all very well, John Grieve, but no one's doing anything'. But they (the Task Force) are arresting 200 people a month. For every two people arrested, three race crimes are being cleared up – two for three is pretty impressive.

"I concede that is a fraction of what is being reported. That's still 220 people that weren't being arrested when Stephen was murdered."

Unlike some of his senior colleagues, Grieve knows when to accept blame. After the Lawrence inquiry, he personally accepted the charge of institutional racism by stating: "I am a racist. I must be because Sir William Macpherson of Cluny said that I am ... I've found inside myself evidence of subtle prejudice, preconception and indirect discrimination. I'm for change inside myself and in the behaviour of others."

The impression is that "change" and obtaining justice for Stephen Lawrence has become a personal crusade. Grieve's role as race "troubleshooter" has made him the target of hate-mail attacks from far-right groups who have dubbed him "the man who would be Stalin".

He is dismissive of them. "Our message to the community is we will arrest them if they commit a criminal offence. But we refer to the BNP and Combat 18 as 'the flag of convenience' for some of these racists – they are not card-carrying members of the party."

In his experience, racism is not confined to whey-faced skinheads. "Who's training these little kids at nursery school spitting out race hate? Sometimes you discover it's their nan: 'My nan says I shouldn't sit next to you because you're black or gay'."

As if Grieve didn't have enough on his plate, there is also domestic violence. With 7,000 incidents a month in London alone, he says the Met has "dramatically" changed its views on these attacks.

He is concerned about the long-term impact that domestic violence has on children and the fact that it can lead to other violent crimes. "In many other kinds of criminality there is a history either as a child in a domestic violence situation or they are domestic abusers themselves in violent relationships.

"The cost to society and the economy is enormous if you think of the days they don't go to work because they've 'fallen down the stairs' again."

While he remains in post Grieve wants no one to be in doubt about his commitment to making London a safe place for ethnic communities.

And until there is something positive to say about the Lawrence investigation, he is keeping quiet, except to appeal for witnesses to come forward.

"We have a good idea about what some witnesses would say which would help the investigation. There will be a time when they come forward ... loyalties change."

Until they do, he has no plans to clear out his office. John Grieve is a patient man.