Sir John Stevens: 'We had a meeting with American police chiefs, and they said: You have no pride in your country'

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

With 154 days to go before Sir John Stevens steps down as Britain's top policeman, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police is starting to think about his legacy.

With 154 days to go before Sir John Stevens steps down as Britain's top policeman, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police is starting to think about his legacy.

How will the public, politicians and fellow officers view the achievements of the country's biggest police force after five years of Sir John at the helm?

The answer, he thinks, is probably unfairly, and almost certainly without enough pride.

Crime has been falling in London, numbers of police officers have reached a record 30,000, more than 95 per cent of homicides are solved, the force lead the world in work on anti-terrorism, yet Sir John feels that Met does not get the credit it deserves. He insists that the Met has moved on from when he took over and the force was being battered by a barrage of headlines about institutional racism, corruption, rising crime, and sexism.

Speaking in his vast office at New Scotland Yard in central London he said: "We had a meeting with American police chiefs five months ago and we said in this seminar 'why is it you think that some of these things we are delivering in London' - which they are incredibly impressed by, not least the work on anti-terrorism - 'why is it that they are not being recognised?'"

"And you know what they said - I felt quite ashamed - they said 'no pride in the city John,' and another one said 'you have got no pride in your country.'

"Let's turn that around. I'm very proud of London, it is one of the greatest cities in the world. So I would like to see a bit more acknowledgement that what we do here is at the highest level. [The Met has] invites to go all over the world and assist. And that's what's been recognised by everyone else."

He added: "The time has to be where recognition is given for some of the things we are delivering in this country. Let's have pride in London.

"There needs to be, from more political parties, a recognition that we are doing a damn good job."

One of the American police officers present at the meeting referred to by Sir John was the head of the Los Angeles Police Department, Bill Bratton.

Mr Bratton - and American policing in general - is another area of contention for the Met Commissioner.

Senior Met officers, including the Commissioner, are clearly furious at the news that Bob Kiley, the American transport supremo brought in by the London Mayor, Ken Livingstone, to resurrect the capital's road and rail systems, contacted his old pal at the LAPD and suggested he apply for Britain's top policing job.

Sir John said: "I had a staff association meeting and there was absolute outrage that anybody who was not involved properly in the system should be going around touting for people in America to do the Commissioner's job."

He added: "I know Bill Bratton well. He is highly capably, but you can't get people involved in this who are outside the system."

He continued: "What are they saying, that the four or five people who have applied are not up to standard and the only person who can do the job is an American.

"It could be taken as insulting - that no-one in this country was good enough to do this job. That's how some people in this building have taken it."

This is not the first time Mr Bratton - who has made it clear that he is not moving from LA, at least for a few years - has provoked resentment among Britain's police chiefs. In 2002 David Blunkett flew in the then former Commissioner of New York Police Department to London to address a conference of chief constables.

Mr Blunkett criticised his officers for not adopting a more "can-do" and "inspiring" approach to crime-fighting - contrasting it with the experience in New York, where serious crime under Mr Bratton was brought down by 39 per cent. This, however, was achieved with 50,000 officers - compared with the 30,000 currently in the Met.

Sir John feels that while we have much to learn from the US it does not offer a panacea to crime.

"There is a massive amount to admire from America, however, for goodness sake, let's have some recognition of what we do in London. Let's be proud of what we are delivering over here," he said.

Brought in as Commissioner with the reputation as a hands-on police chief and a "copper's copper", he has surprised some of his senior colleagues at the skilful way he has handled the various political battles with the Home Secretary. Most commentators believe the encounters have been fairly evenly matched, with Mr Blunkett softening his approach and media briefings as the Metropolitan Police's crime figures have improved.

Both the Home Secretary and the Commissioner have what are described as forceful personalities and Sir John in particular is known to occasionally blow his top. On one occasion he pulled a police staff member out of the lift and was about to give him a tongue lashing for ignoring several questions from the Commissioner, only to be told that the man was deaf.

Sir John has been particularly grateful for the new anti-terrorism laws introduced by Mr Blunkett, allowing the police more time to question suspects without charging them.

Yet he believes the police are winning the battle to convince Muslim communities, particularly the young, that they are not being unfairly targeted, although he concedes that the Met needs to "communicate" better.

"We are getting immense co-operation from the Muslim community including providing us with intelligence and information," he said.

Sir John believes that the public will have a better appreciation of the work the police and security services are doing once the 100-odd trials involving alleged terrorists that are currently going through the courts are dealt with.

But while full of praise for the anti-terrorism legislation, the Commissioner is less happy about the growing number of targets and priorities the police are set by the Home Office, which some police chiefs say are bureaucratic and can hinder crime fighting.

"There are far too many targets. There should be two or three targets, like the reduction in crime and public satisfaction," argued Sir John.

"I would like to see far more generic targets, including public satisfaction. You have to deliver what the public want or you will lose them."

He is also concerned about the prospect of political parties, in the run up to the General Election, trying to use the police for their own advantage.

"We must not be politicised. The greatest threat to British policing is [to] our independence. It's absolutely essential that I can get on with the sort of high profile investigations that we deal with every week of the year without any political interference," he continued.

"It would be absolutely outrageous and against democracy if any political figure tried to influence me. Trust among the public is the most important thing we need to hold on to."

When Sir John ends his five year contract on 31 January - almost certainly to be replaced by his deputy, Sir Ian Blair - he will continue with two on-going inquiries. The hugely complicated and lengthy investigation into collusion between the police and Army and loyalist paramilitaries in Northern Ireland, and the inquiry into the 1997 deaths of Diana, Princess of Wales, and Dodi Fayed in Paris.

Asked whether he shared the view of some commentators and fellow officers that the Diana inquiry was a waste of money and time and would inevitably find no evidence to support various outlandish murder theories, he replied: "This is a case where there is world wide attention. This investigation has to be done.

"The conspiracy theories that are around could be extremely damaging if they are proven and if they are disproved they will at least be put to bed."

The greatest professional regret of the Commissioner is the police's failure to convict the killers of 10-year-old Damilola Taylor who was stabbed to death on a south London housing estate in November 2000. But there may be some progress in this case on the forensic side. Commenting on the case he said cryptically: "You never give up. Let's wait and see what happens in the next six months."

Trying to relax from the pressures of his 24-hour-a-day job is difficult, but Sir John says that he has an "escape file" of activities that take his mind away from policing. These include flying - he is a qualified pilot and owns a share in an aircraft - and his grandchildren. He and his wife, Cynthia, who is a district nurse, have three children, including a son who is a detective at the Met.

He is still fit and once he retires from the Met, aged 62, he will be in great demand. Companies, charities, and universities are already queuing up to offer him work and tap in to his experience and contacts. "It's been incredibly flattering. I have so many offers. I have been inundated," he said.

Although one job offer is about to be agreed, he would only confirmed that he has accepted a post in New York as distinguished lecturer at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in 2005, and that he will be doing three weeks volunteer work flying an air ambulance in Romania.

THE CV: John Stevens

Born: 21 October 1942 in Kent; son of an airline pilot

Education: Leicester and Southampton universities.

1962: Joined Metropolitan Police, rising to Detective Chief Superintendent.

1986: Assistant Chief Constable, Hampshire.

1989: Deputy Chief Constable, Cambridgeshire.

1991: Chief Constable, Northumbria.

1996: HM Inspector of Constabulary.

1998: Deputy Commissioner, Metropolitan Police.

2000: Knighted and made Commissioner.

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