Sir John Stevens: 'Al-Qa'ida is far more sophisticated than any of us expected'

The Monday Interview: The Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police
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The Independent Online

Sir John Stevens is disappointed over the new crime figures showing that muggings, gun crime, burglary and robbery are all down in London. He had hoped the Met might receive a small pat on the back.

Instead the headlines read "London is the most violent place to live" and "sex attacks soar". Added to that, all one local television presenter wanted to know was why the police weren't solving more crimes.

The usually affable Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police - Britain's most powerful cop - thinks that is unfair. "I find it pretty frustrating. Violent crime has come down and yet you are getting some headlines that talk about London being the capital city of violence. Some articles say London is more violent than Johannesburg, which is absolute nonsense."

Part of his frustration with the headlines is that he knows his force's every move is under scrutiny by the political parties and, of course, David Blunkett - whom he describes as an "energetic" Home Secretary.

He is also aware that, before the next general election, crime - and the statistics - will play an important role. "We don't want to be used as a political football," he insists.

True, many of the crime stats are impressive - burglary at its lowest rate since 1976 and overall offences down in the capital by 8 per cent - but not all of them make good reading. London has the lowest detection rate in Britain. Only 14 per cent of reported crimes are solved or cleared up, compared with the West Midlands Police and its 26 per cent rate, and rural Dyfed-Powys - top of the pile - with 68 per cent.

Part of the reason is the uniquely shifting population in the capital, making detection far harder than among a small resident group of villains, but Sir John admits 14 per cent is not good enough and must improve.

With nearly 29,000 officers, the Met makes up about a quarter of the country's police strength. But even by the frenetic standards of Scotland Yard, where barely a week goes by without a terror alert, state visit, gruesome murderor royal rumpus, the past few months have been extraordinary.

Among the highlights have been the break-in at Windsor Castle by a comedian; the largest criminal investigation in British history into collusion allegations over the shooting of the Belfast solicitor Pat Finucane; armed officers at the airports and on the streets in an anti-terrorism drive; and a spate of Yardie drugs killings. To top it all, in May Sir John became the first Met Commissioner to go to trial at the Old Bailey.

His workforce is particularly stretched at the moment because of the additional anti- terrorism duties, and the threat from the Real IRA. Sir John, who at 60 says he has lost none of his drive for the most demanding policing job in Britain, admits the police and intelligence agencies have been taken aback by the scale of the al-Qa'ida presence in the UK.

"The network is far more sophisticated and better planned than any of us thought it would be. A lot of the stuff that has been done over the years has been very meticulously planned for the long term rather than the short or medium term. This has gradually worked its way up, so sometimes it is very difficult to detect until you have a real wake-up call like 11 September was," he says.

He agrees with Tony Blair and the director general of MI5 that a terrorist attack in Britain is inevitable, although he believes "massive advances" in anti-terrorism measures have been made. Asked whether the discovery of a kitchen-sink laboratory at a flat in north London where the poison ricin had been made, was a one-off, he replies: "No, we have got to be alert to the fact that others might be out there."

When he took over the Met in 2000 from Sir Paul Condon, one of his priorities was to rebuild the force's reputation and morale, which had been battered from the Stephen Lawrence case. "We were in a real crisis situation," he recalls.

He inherited a force of 25,400 officers and one of his most important targets has been to push that up to 35,000. He now has 28,838 and he looks increasingly likely to reach his goal. His ability to win the argument over extra funding has surprised some among his senior officers, who feared he would be out of his depth with seasoned politicians. "Our standing with the Home Office has never been higher," one says. "He has enormous presence and has delivered where it counts, which is what matters at the Home Office.

"He has a pretty short fuse and loses it at times, so many of us thought it would only be a matter of time before he came unstuck with a London emergencies - but he hasn't. He's doing a fantastic job - although that's not to say he can still be a bit barking at times."

Officers say that their 6ft 3in commissioner can go into a rage over the most unlikely matters, such as an officer failing to wear a badge, whereas what would appear to be severe crisis, such as the intruder breaking into Windsor Castle, leave him unruffled.

Sir John says: "You can plan for events but some of these things that come and hit you sharply are things that are totally unplanned - the [Paul] Burrell case was one and certainly Windsor was another."

His temper can lead to comic moments, such as when a subordinate declined to acknowledge his greeting on two occasions while in a lift at Scotland Yard. The underling was taken to the Commissioner's office for a roasting, only for Sir John to be told he was deaf. Instead of a dressing-down the staff member got a cup of tea.

Unlike his more urbane predecessor, Stevens is seen as a "copper's copper" and it is easy to understand why. One retired officer has noted that Sir John had spoken to his son - also an officer - four times. "I never met our governor once," he recalled.

In May he appeared with Sir Paul, now Lord Condon, at the Old Bailey where they were accused of failing to protect their officers. Each denied four charges, under health and safety law, involving the death of a 24-year-old officer and serious injuries to a second when they fell through several roofs.

In giving evidence, Sir John was asked to recall an appearance in the same court in 1965 when he was giving evidence as a probationer with the Met. He recalled: "It was about 5.30 in the morning, and it was cold. We were stood in a doorway outside a club in Goodge Street." Accompanied by another officer, the young PC Stevens watched a car pull up and four men get out. "[They] took out - from the boot - hatchets, crowbars, knives, went into the club and, rather stupidly or otherwise, we decided something had to be done.

"So myself and my colleague went towards the door of the club. They tried to slam it in our face. We smashed through the door and these people were in the course of stabbing people in the club. The Turkish Cypriot owner of that club was having his arm cut off ... blood was pumping out everywhere."

He said the men fled and he confronted them in the street. "Another colleague came up, and there was one hell of a fight with me and my truncheon and them and their hatchets. It was then I realised the truncheon wasn't much use. I broke it."

With the help of police reinforcement four gangsters were arrested. "It was a bloody business," concluded the Met chief.

At the end of this year's trial, Sir John and his force were cleared. It led to strong criticism of the Health and Safety Executive, which was accused of wasting millions on a ludicrous prosecution.

An issue that has dominated Sir John's life has been his inquiries into the murder of Mr Finucane by the UDA in 1989. In his "interim" report published in April, Sir John concluded that the shooting could have been prevented: the killers would almost certainly have been brought to justice years ago were it not for widespread collusion between army intelligence officers and police.

Asked whether he wished he had never got involved in the inquiry, he said: "I do have regrets sometimes - it's taken 14 years and its been extremely harrowing on occasion, but we have got there."

THE CV

  • Born in Kent on 21 October 1942. Son of an RAF pilot. Attended St Lawrence College, Ramsgate, before studying law at Leicester University.
  • Joined the Metropolitan Police in 1962. Rose through the ranks. Jobs included head of the Metropolitan Police murder squads.
  • In 1986 he was appointed assistant Chief Constable of Hampshire Constabulary.
  • Since 1989 he has been head of inquiries into collusion between the police, the Army and loyalist paramilitaries.
  • In September 1991 he was appointed Chief Constable of Northumbria Police.
  • In September 1996 he was appointed one of Her Majesty's inspectors of constabulary.
  • Rejoined the Met as Deputy Commissioner in 1998, with responsibility to fight police corruption, and became Commissioner in Feb 2000.
  • His hobbies include flying - he has shares in a Cessna light aircraft and a Jet Provost.

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