Police chief heading for a brief encounter

Jason Bennetto hears top officer's plan to curb aggressive barristers
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Barristers who intimidate witnesses by their aggressive cross- examination should be banned by law, according to police chiefs who believe such a move would encourage people to give evidence.

They will also be pressing the Government to introduce a big expansion of DNA sampling and will be promoting greater use of video interviews of witnesses and defendants in court.

Ray White, the Chief Constable of Dyfed Powys and the new president of the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo), revealed some of the main aims of forces in England and Wales for 1997 in an interview with The Independent.

Mr White takes over one of the most powerful jobs in policing at a time when chief constables have the ear of both the Tories and Labour. In the run-up to the election Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, and his shadow, Jack Straw, have been falling over themselves to take up issues raised by police chiefs, be it the right to silence, CS sprays or a national crime squad.

They know that law and order will be an important election issue and that the backing of the police is vital. It is therefore an ideal time to push and promote ideas and aims of the police.

One of Acpo's priorities in 1997 will be to improve conditions for witnesses. Mr White believes a law is needed to restrict lawyers' ability to question witnesses in an aggressive or abusive manner. The police would like a new set of rules that specify how far barristers can go.

They believe this will help encourage witnesses and defendants to testify at trials. However there will be concerns that if cross-examinations are restricted then people who are lying could escape detection.

Mr White said: "Barristers are becoming increasingly more intimidating and cross-examine innocent witnesses in a way the police would never be allowed to.

"The rules of conducting cases should be changed so that barristers should not unduly harass the witness. I would have a set of rules that restrict cross-examination in a similar way to how the police have to deal with suspects."

The call follows a series of high-profile court cases. In September a barrister was criticised by a judge for claiming that a dental nurse terrified by a stalker liked the attention of men and had behaved like a "queen bee that dresses to kill".

Mr White also wants to extend the use of police video tape recordings of suspects and witnesses and to use this as standard evidence in court. He believes this will be far more convincing and transparent to a jury than reading out a statement from a notebook or an audio tape. "We ought to be fully moving into the video age," he said.

The police will also be pressing for better conditions in courts for witnesses, such as separate rooms, and faster court procedures to limit the time taken for a case to reach court.

Mr White, 56, took over as boss at Dyfed Powys seven years ago. His force covers about two-thirds of Wales which has seen crime cut by 32 per cent over the past three years and the detection rate rise to an enviable 57 per cent.

Born and brought up in the Isle of Wight, the son of a builder in a family of five, he conceived an ambition to join the police at the age of 14. Five years later, ignoring the advice of his school to go to university, he joined Hampshire police. "There was no other choice for me," he said.

Married with two grown-up sons - one a policeman - and a keen rugby supporter, he "lives and breathes policing 24 hours a day", colleagues say. He considers himself firmly conservative over issues such as drugs.

In the next year he intends to promote police successes and argued "there's too much gloom and doom about crime".

Mr White questioned the repeated assertions by the Tories that they have boosted the numbers of bobbies on the beat. He said: "During the lifetime of this government there's been a substantial increase in police manpower but most of these increases took place in the early years and this has slowed to something of a trickle in the last 10 years. The potential to improve the service will require more resources to be made available."

Another of Acpo's campaigns for the forthcoming year is for a new law to allow the police to take DNA samples from prisoners already convicted of crimes involving violence, sex, or burglary as they are released. The Government has pledged to do this for sex offenders, although a proposed Bill now appears to have been shelved.

Mr White said a comprehensive DNA database would help detection of serious crimes.